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Testimony on The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997

 

Submitted to
The Committee on International Relations
United States House of Representatives

Reverend Drew Christiansen, S.J.
Director, Office of International Justice and Peace
U.S. Catholic Conference

September 10, 1997

Mr. Chairman, allow me to thank you for the opportunity to testify before this committee on behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Let me also thank you for the efforts of this committee, and especially those of Congressman Wolf, to raise the consciousness of the American public and heighten the responsiveness of the United States Government to the persecution of Christians and members of other religious communities in various parts of the world.

The several congressional resolutions on religious persecution highlighted in this bill, and the growing attention to this issue are most encouraging. Also to be applauded is the recent State Department report, "United States Policies in Support of Religious Freedom: Focus on Christians," which helps raise the curtain on the often hidden reality of persecution of Christians around the world. We hope that this report and the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad reflect a new commitment -- which is needed -- on the part of our government to use the many tools at its disposal to challenge intolerance of religion around the world.

While there is new public attention to religious liberty, this is not a new issue for the U.S. Catholic bishops. From religious persecution in the Soviet bloc and Latin America during the Cold War to China and Sudan today, we have worked -- sometimes quietly, other times more publicly -- on behalf of those denied their fundamental right to religious freedom. We have made solidarity visits, issued appeals for legal protection of religious liberty, protested killings and imprisonment, and met with ambassadors and dissidents to discuss the plight of the persecuted. We have worked with the Catholic Church in many countries to support the establishment of human rights offices which defend against religious intolerance and other forms of persecution.1

For us, religious persecution has a human face. We know priests and bishops in China who have spent years in prison. We have attended funerals for missionaries and bishops in Central America who have preached the gospel at their peril. We have sought to support church leaders in Burundi who have been attacked because of their efforts at reconciliation. We have met with Muslim, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia whose family members were killed and churches, mosques, and homes destroyed simply because of their religion. We have helped Iraqi Protestants obtain refugee status and asylum in the United States. Consistent with its commitment to serve all based on need not creed, Catholic Relief Services provides aid for Muslims and Hindus suffering due to religious strife in India, and persecuted members of traditional religions and Christians in Sudan. We have met bishops in Vietnam who face intolerable restrictions on their ability to minister to their people; we have supported the Catholic Church in Poland as it sought to remain an independent voice for gospel values and human rights. It is for these and others denied their right to religious freedom that we will be praying during the season of prayer this fall. We have prayed and worked for greater religious freedom for all for decades. We welcome new allies in this work and new congressional action.

In all our activities, we first listen to the pleas of those who are suffering and seek their counsel and advice on how we can help relieve their plight. For us that means close consultation with the bishops of the given country as well as the Holy See. We are convinced that the people who are the victims of religious persecution and discrimination are the best sources of information and advice. They are the experts on their own situation; they understand the cultural and social conditions in which they must struggle for their own liberty, and they will be the ones impacted by the protests and actions of outsiders.

Listening to those who are suffering confirms our conviction that, as Pope John Paul II has said, "religious persecution is an intolerable and unjustifiable violation of the most fundamental human freedom, that of practicing one's faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.3 Religious persecution is such a grave evil because it attacks people's most intimate identity and fundamental values; it undermines conscience and stifles community. Indeed, religious freedom is, as the Holy Father has said, a "cornerstone" of the structure of human rights," an "irreplaceable factor" in both the individual good and the common good, which consists of a just and peaceful social order.4

Religious freedom has both a personal dimension -- the freedom of conscience -- and a social dimension - the free exercise of religions.5 Freedom of conscience is the freedom to make a personal decision based on one's beliefs free of external coercion and discrimination. Because human nature is both personal and social, freedom of conscience is tied to the social dimension of religious liberty: the free exercise of religion.

Religious liberty covers a broad range of activities, from freedom of worship to the right to establish charitable groups and to participate in and to seek to influence public affairs. Therefore, it is inextricably linked to other human rights, such as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and legal recognition of voluntary associations. It is a right not just of individuals but is also a right of religious communities. Denial of juridical status to a religious body violates religious liberty just as discrimination against an individual believer does.

We welcome the introduction of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act for several reasons.

First, this bill, and the wider campaign of which it is a part, has given religious liberty a new presence and visibility that, with a few notable exceptions, has been largely absent in the past. For too long our nation has neglected or ignored issues of religious persecution.

Second, the bill's objective of putting more teeth into U.S. efforts to stop the most egregious violations of religious liberty is consistent with the U.S. bishops' long-standing position that protection of religious liberty and human rights should be a priority of U.S. foreign policy. In particular, we have often urged that U.S. policy, from foreign aid to trade, be tied to a country's record on protecting religious liberty and other fundamental human rights. We heartily endorse the bill's intent to make the elimination of religious persecution a top priority for U.S. foreign policy.

Third, the bill's distinction between category-one and category-two forms of persecution is helpful. Religious persecution by nongovernmental groups, while serious, should not be treated in the same way as persecution by governments. While the effects may be the same, different sources of persecution require different approaches by our government. Governments should be held accountable for violations of fundamental human rights, especially religious persecution.

Fourth, the serious neglect and lack of priority of religious liberty in U.S. foreign policy is addressed in the bill's provisions on reporting and training. The effort to improve reporting on religious liberty by the State Department and strengthen training of foreign service and immigration officers, given our experience in this area, seem well justified. Ignorance or indifference to violations of religious liberty by those who serve our nation cannot be tolerated.

Finally, the bill provides for the restoration of certain vital procedural safeguards previously available to applicants for asylum but withdrawn last year by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). The Conference shares the widespread perception that religious persecution has not been given adequate attention or treated with adequate sensitivity by those responsible for asylum and refugee matters in either the Departments of State or Justice. The bill provides measures which attempt to respond to and correct these deficiencies. We frankly wish they were broader but they represent a step forward.

I will address the provisions contained in the section of the bill dealing with asylum only briefly in my testimony but I request permission to submit for the record the analysis of this section of the bill and our recommendations prepared by the Conference's Office of Migration and Refugee Services.

Of particular importance are those portions of the bill which impact the recently enacted immigration legislation. While acknowledging the need to address growing asylum adjudication backlogs and perceived abuses of our asylum system, the bishops' conference has felt that ImIRA went too far in unnecessarily restricting the safeguards previously accorded the asylum seeker. We believe that each part of Section 9 which restores certain procedural safeguards, at least to those claiming religious persecution, is very much needed. Current summary exclusion procedures raise a real possibility that many legitimate asylum seekers may be returned to their persecutors without a chance to have their claim adjudicated.

For these reasons, we believe this bill represents a positive and welcome effort. We believe, however, that it should be strengthened in several ways.

First, the section on asylum might not be strong enough to achieve its intended effect with respect to current summary exclusion provisions. Thus, we suggest a strengthening of the protections provided by the bill in this area. The procedural safeguards restored for those who have been denied after a full asylum status adjudication are elemental to a just decision in a proceeding which is critical to the future and even the life of the applicant. However, the bill recognizes that legislation that sets forth certain procedural safeguards is only as effective as its implementers. In light of the apparent lack of understanding or inadequate attention to the issue of religious persecution on the part of the bureaucracies of the Departments of State and Justice, the special training and reporting requirements for those dealing with persons claiming religious persecution are an important ingredient of the bill. In addition, the Conference strongly recommends an expansion of the use of Immigration and Naturalization Service Asylum Corps officers in conducting refugee status adjudications abroad, especially in caseloads from countries designated under the bill as either committing or permitting religious persecution.

It is essential to note that the bill restores these important procedural safeguards only to persons claiming religious persecution, leaving IIRIRA untouched with respect to those claiming persecution on the grounds of race, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, the other four categories protected in the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the related 1967 Protocol. Over the past two years, the American Catholic bishops have fought hard against the withdrawal of these and other critical protections previously accorded those seeking asylum in our country. We continue to believe that these safeguards should be restored for all. We would urge that the bill be broadened to this effect. Regardless of the outcome of this legislation the Conference pledges itself to a major effort to see that these safeguards are extended to those claiming persecution on the basis of all five categories protected under the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Second, the bill should expand its coverage to include all persecuted religious groups in all countries, without holding certain persecuted groups to a different standard or requiring them to seek additional legislation. In Catholic teaching, religious liberty is universal and indivisible. If one group is to enjoy religious freedom, all must enjoy it. The bill rightly seeks to bring attention to the often overlooked persecution of Christians, as well as Iranian Baha'-is, and Tibetan Buddhists. But the world's persecutors must be clear that the United States will not tolerate persecution of Muslims, Hindus and Jews any more than it does persecuted Christians or Buddhists. A universal concern for persecuted religious believers is not only good policy, it is good theology -- and a source of unity among religious groups.

Third, consideration should be given to expanding the definition of religious persecution. In our work on religious liberty around the world, we focus not just on the most egregious examples of persecution that would be covered by this bill, but also on other, unfortunately much more common, violations of religious liberty, such as onerous registration laws and limits on the freedom to practice one's religion. The bill should make clear that, while limited in the violations it covers, U.S. policy is concerned about all violations of religious freedom as defined in international documents.

Moreover, we recognize that this bill's reach is limited in order to ensure proportionality between violations of religious freedom and the sanctions contemplated by the bill, but the violations listed do not adequately cover even these cases. For example, in the Soviet bloc in years past one of the most overt forms of persecution was the destruction of church properties and cemeteries. Moreover, it would be most unfortunate if the bill did not apply to situations where virtually all freedom of religion was prohibited or believers were intimidated into refraining from practicing their religion but where arrest, torture, and the like might not be widespread.

Fourth, we have several concerns that arise out of the moral ambiguity of economic sanctions. The U.S. Bishops summarized their position on sanctions in their 1994 statement, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, when they said:

The troubling moral problems posed by the suffering caused by sanctions and the limits to their effectiveness counsel that this blunt instrument be used sparingly and with restraint. Economic sanctions may be acceptable, but only if less coercive means fail, as an alternative to war and as a means of upholding fundamental international norms.6

This judgment was made in the context of comprehensive economic sanctions, but our experience of a variety of sanctions regimes in recent years leads us as to be cautious and deliberate in invoking them as a remedy in public affairs. Our attitude toward sanctions has two implications for this bill.

First, sanctions should be targeted, as much as possible at those responsible for religious persecution. We welcome, therefore, the humanitarian exemptions that are included in the bill and the fact that the bilateral sanctions cover only aid given directly to governments, not programs run by nongovernmental organizations. Given the moral significance of this issue, we would hope the bill would also make clear, either in the language of the bill or in the committee report, that sanctions would not include bilateral aid programs that while not technically humanitarian in nature have a significant humanitarian impact. Here we are thinking of those economic, cultural and political development programs, implemented by nongovernmental organizations, that directly empower the poor or directly alleviate poverty (e.g., micro-enterprise development, child survival, education, building rural infrastructure, agricultural development) as well as those that contribute to the development of civil society and the rule of law. Permitting these kinds of aid through nongovernmental organizations would help avoid the moral problem of punishing the poor, those suffering from religious persecution, and opposition groups for the sins of their government.

Similarly, multilateral aid that serves the poor and vulnerable should not be covered by these sanctions. In addition to the humanitarian exemption provided in the bill, it should be clear that multilateral development programs that directly help the poor and vulnerable will be permitted. Here we are thinking of some of the health, education, and grassroots development programs funded under the World Bank's International Development Association (IDA) and other multilateral development assistance.

Our second caution concerns the automatic nature of the sanctions in this bill. Religious persecution is a grave matter, and so, too, are sanctions. We have supported sanctions in the past -- e.g., denial of MFN for China, Jackson-Vanik in Eastern Europe, ending military aid to El Salvador, many of the measures in this bill that relate to Sudan. In these and other cases, we believe a variety of criteria should be considered in imposing sanctions, including, in this case, their impact on ordinary civilians and their likely efficacy in ending religious persecution. In the past, the U.S. bishops have taken a case-by-case approach to the imposition of sanctions, supporting them (with adequate humanitarian proviso) as an alternative to war and in response to human rights violations but opposing them in some other cases. The problematic aspects of the automatic sanctions contemplated by this bill are reduced somewhat by the limited nature of the sanctions imposed and the limited number of countries that would be affected.

In addition, we would recommend two ways to advance the purposes of the bill while reducing the possibility that sanctions would be imposed in a situation where they might be counterproductive or where other tools might be more effective.

Public Review. In making findings of religious persecution in a particular country, the director should also be required to make a finding of the potential impact of sanctions on the wider society and the likely efficacy of sanctions in ending religious persecution. Formal public review and comment on particular findings should also be incorporated into the process.

The director could be required to make a preliminary finding of religious persecution, which would be subject to public comment before a final finding is made. Such public review could help ensure that sanctions will not be waived for powerful allies while being imposed in response to persecution in countries of less strategic concern to the United States. Formal public input could also improve the assessment of the impact of sanctions on the affected religious groups and other elements of the population, could reinforce findings of religious persecution, and could contribute to the process of judging the efficacy of imposing sanctions or the need for other, stronger and more effective remedies -- including trade sanctions, which are avoided, for the most part, in the bill.

An expanded waiver. We do not believe it would be helpful to the cause of persecuted believers if the United States were to regularly and easily waive limited sanctions for U.S. allies or major powers even in the face of a finding of egregious forms of religious persecution. Nor do we believe it would be helpful to go forward with sanctions in cases where national security interests are not at stake but where sanctions might clearly exacerbate the situation of the persecuted or seriously harm the wider population which bears no responsibility for persecution. Therefore, we would recommend that an additional ground for a waiver be added to the bill so that these limited sanctions may be waived if clearly necessary to meet the purposes of the bill.

In conclusion, I would like to say that, while we welcome the higher profile and priority now being given religious liberty, we have been repeatedly disappointed that both the Congress and the Executive, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, have tended to place economic and political interests ahead of religious liberty and human rights. It is regrettable that Most Favored Nation status is granted to China without any linkage to human rights performance and respect for religious liberty. Whether it is China or Indonesia, Sudan, Russia or Bosnia, religious liberty should be a primary concern of United States foreign policy. That is why we generally welcome and support this bill's efforts to ensure that is indeed the case.

We will continue to work to strengthen and refine particular provisions of this bill to ensure that it will be an effective tool for raising the curtain on and combating a too-often-ignored problem, and improving the situation of the millions who are suffering simply because of their religious beliefs. U.S. policy must be measured by how effectively it defends religious liberty and human rights. U.S. religious institutions will be judged by how effectively we stand in solidarity and act in support of believers who risk their freedom and their lives for their faith.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for inviting our participation in this forum. The U.S. bishops, through the U.S. Catholic Conference's offices of International Justice and Peace and Migration and Refugee Services, will be pleased to continue to assist committee staff and others in Congress and the administration in advancing the cause of religious liberty.

Endnotes

  1. See, e.g., Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick, "Religious Freedom Today," March 31, 1997; Most Reverend Theodore E. McCarrick, Statement on Renewal of MFN for China, May 21, 1997; Most Reverend Daniel P. Reilly, "Statement on Vietnam," September 15, 1994; U.S. Catholic Conference letter to Immigration and Naturalization Service on religious grounds for asylum in abortion and sterilization cases, February 27, 1990; U.S. Catholic Conference, A Time for Dialogue and Healing: A Pastoral Reflection on U.S. -Vietnam Relations, 1989; U.S. Catholic Conference, A Word of Solidarity. a Call for Justice: A Statement on Religious Freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1988; U.S. Catholic Conference, Religious liberty in Eastern Europe, 1977; numerous statements on aspects of religious persecution in Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaraqua, Cuba and Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s.

  2. Examples of those with whom we consult include, among others, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo in East Timor, Archbishop Simon Ntamwana in Burundi, Archbishop Rafael Nbingi Mwana A-Nzeki, Bishop Macram Max Gassis of Sudan, Cardinal Vinko Puljic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz in Russia, Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Cuba, the Bishops' Commission for Social Concerns (CEPS) in Mexico.

  3. Address to the Diplomatic Corps, January 1996.

  4. Pope John Paul II, "World Day of Peace Message," January 1, 1988, Origins 17:28

  5. (December 24, 1987): 493.

  6. See the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae) (1965); National Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Word of Solidarity. A Call for Justice: A Statement on Religious Freedom in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (Washington, D.C: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1988): 6-9.

  7. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown In Peace (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1993): 15. 


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