NEWS STORY: Panel urges religious freedom as `paramount factor’ in U.S. foreign policy

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ Members of the State Department’s new panel on religious freedom abroad Thursday (Feb. 13) urged the U.S. government to take “bold as well as prudent” steps to ensure that support for religious freedom is a “paramount factor” in U.S. foreign policy.

At its first official meeting, the advisory committee _ comprised of 20 leaders from diverse religious and academic organizations and known formally as the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad _ began identifying priorities and organizing logistics as it sets out to study the problem of global religious persecution and recommend U.S. policy responses.

In a statement released at the conclusion of the all-day meeting at the department, committee members condemned religious persecution and intolerance as “assaults on religion’s true role as a source of human dignity and an affirmation of life.”

Committee members also pledged to “serve as an effective instrument to help the U.S. government secure respect for freedom of religion and human rights abroad” by providing information and developing new policy recommendations.

During a brief appearance at the meeting, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stressed the importance of the committee’s work “for an understanding that is necessary” to U.S. foreign policy. “I count on your advice,” she said.

In her remarks, Albright also noted she had “learned only recently of the role religious persecution has played in my own life,” a reference to recent revelations that her family had concealed its Jewish identity after fleeing from Eastern Europe just prior to World War II and that a number of family members had died in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“If anything, I am more eager to work with you and make our work a living monument to all those who have suffered for their beliefs,” she said.

On Wednesday evening, the committee met privately with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Several committee members said Mrs. Clinton also stressed the importance of the new panel and said it is time for the United States to do a better job of “balancing” various rights, including the right to religious freedom, within foreign policy.

The administration declined to release Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher named the advisory committee in November after more than a year of discussions between administration officials, religious leaders and human rights activists.

In January 1996, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), which represents some 15 million Christians in a variety of denominations, called on the U.S. government to take stronger measures on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world, including the appointment of a special presidential adviser for religious liberty.

The NAE statement came amid a new effort by evangelicals and Catholics to raise awareness about the global plight of persecuted Christians.

Among the panel members are NAE President Don Argue; the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; the Rev. James Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Rabbi Irving Greenberg of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; Islamic leader Imam Warith Deen Mohammed; Dr. Russell Marion Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Archbishop Spyridon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

The committee has the broad agenda of addressing persecution among all religious groups.

However, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck, who is chairing the committee, announced that his office is separately preparing a report specifically on the persecution of Christians. He said the report will be released “within the next month,” after more information has been gathered from advisory committee members.

A little-publicized provision inserted in the budget adopted by Congress last fall directed the State Department to prepare the report.

The full advisory committee, which has a two-year mandate, will next meet in June, and then again in the fall.

According to Shattuck, the goal is to produce an “interim report and set of recommendations” by the end of the year.

In a wide-ranging preliminary discussion of priorities, committee members appeared to be united in their concern about egregious human rights violations against all religious groups. At the same time, there were varying concerns over how to focus the committee’s attention.

Some committee members highlighted the situation of Christian groups, asserting that Christians are the largest single group being persecuted in the world.

However, Harvard University religion scholar Diana Eck said while she was “moved” by the stories of persecution against Christians, she was also concerned there not be an “imbalance” or neglect of attention paid to persecuted groups that do not have large Western institutions or the ability to distribute information about their plights.

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Another thorny issue introduced was the role of religious proselytism in provoking persecution or interreligious tensions. Indiana University Professor Elliot Sperling noted that in Tibet, while Buddhists are oppressed, some foreign missionaries have been allowed greater freedoms by Chinese officials who apparently hope the missionaries will harm the Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Laila Al-Marayati of the Muslim Women’s League urged the committee not to get bogged down on issues like proselytism, but rather to concentrate on issues everyone agrees on such as the murder, torture and imprisonment of religious believers, while addressing the more controversial issues separately.

Several committee members spoke ardently about the importance of moving from talk to specific policy recommendations.

“Ultimately, this committee will be defined by the fruits of its labors,” said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House’s Puebla Program on Religious Freedom.

In an interview after the meeting, Rabbi Greenberg agreed. “The real test will be to follow through (on) our words, but the words have been encouraging,” he said.

Other committee members are Baha’i leader Wilma M. Ellis; Bishop Frederick Calhoun James of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church of America; the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles of the Memorial Baptist Church of Memphis, Tenn.; Jewish scholar Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University; David Little of the U.S. Institute of Peace; Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J.; Roman Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M.; and Barnett Richard Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations.

MJP END LAWTON

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