Freedom from Religious Persecution

People of faith generally applauded the Republican leadership's backing of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act. The bill, which was championed by evangelical Christian organizations, would establish an office in the White House to monitor religious persecution abroad; mandate economic sanctions against countries that oppress on the basis of religion; and give those fleeing religious persecution priority when seeking asylum in the United States.

The prominence of the bill-which Newt Gingrich called "one of the top priorities of this Republican Congress"-reflects the growing leverage that evangelicals have in the field of international human rights.

However, there are some who think the bill-which focuses on three religious groups that have been designated as victims of persecution-Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Baha'is in Iran-is too limited.

"Of course everyone should support freedom from religious persecution," said Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "[But] to protect just three religious groups, and seemingly ignore the rest, will lead to the conclusion that the drafters of this legislation do not care about the suffering of Muslims in Kashmir, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, Bosnia, Israel, China, Ethiopia, India, Chechnya, and elsewhere."

Others wondered why the United States should create a hierarchy of human rights that emphasizes religious persecution over other abuses such as racial genocide or political repression. "Is it right for Christians to limit their outrage to violations against Christians?" asked William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International.

Even Republican Trent Lott, one of the primary endorsers of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, had reservations when questioned about how this bill could affect relations with a nation like China, which is well-known for its persecution of Christians, Buddhists, and members of other faiths, but which also enjoys Republican-backed Most Favored Nation trading status. "I have never met a bill that couldn't be made better," Lott said.

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