Date: Tue, 6 Oct 1998 16:58:23 EDT
Subject: [Atheist] re: AANEWS for October 6, 1998
Precedence: bulk

Compromise act still has U.S. gov't favoring religion in foreign policy strategy

American Atheists, AANews, #448, 6 October 1998

Clinton May Sign Revised Religious Persecution Legislation

A vote is expected shortly on compromise legislation which puts the U.S. Government in the business of monitoring cases of religious persecution in foreign nations, and enacting a range of penalties in event of any violations. Late last month, solons from sides of Capitol Hill managed to hammer out a middle course acceptable to backers of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, and a watered-down proposal version co-sponsored by Senators Don Nickles (R-OK) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT.) Word is that Sen. Trent Lott, Senate Majority Leader, will be calling for a full vote on the measure shortly, possibly later this week, introduced as the International Religious Freedom Act.

Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Frank R. Wolfe, key players in the religious persecution issue, announced their support for the IRFA; Mr. Wolfe described it as a good bill, and warned The failure to pass a bill would result in open season on people's faith. The New York Times noted that with support dwindling for the original FFRPA, Mr. Lott can now fulfill his promise to religious right groups that Congress would take up the issue prior to recess.

Although the FFRPA had enthusiastic backing from groups like Christian Coalition, key Republicans with ties to the business community voiced concerns about the measure. The act called for the establishment of an office within the White House organizational structure, with a director; the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring would have evaluated compliance of foreign nations with certain standards regarding treatment of religious minorities and foreign missionaries. Violation would have resulted in mandatory penalties such as loss of foreign aid and restrictions on trading.

The IRFA (S.1868) is considered somewhat broader than the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, however, and attempts to alleviate fears of a one- size-fits-all approach to dealing with offending nations which had been expressed by the U.S. Department of State and the White House. There is cautious optimism that President Clinton will sign on to the new compromise legislation. But in certain respects, while the IRFA provides the U.S. with greater flexibility in sanctioning offending nations, it involves Uncle Sam even more deeply than would the FFRPA in the business of favoring and promoting religion. The act would:

express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, individuals persecuted for their faith worldwide; to authorize United States actions in response to religious persecution worldwide; to establish an Ambassador at Large on International Religious Freedom within the Department of State, a Commission on International Religious Persecution, and a Special Adviser on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council...

Other sections of the Act require establishment of an internet site containing major international documents relating to religious freedom, the Annual Report on Religious Persecution, and any other relevant documentation or references to other sites.

The measure gives the President a smorgasbord of sanctions to choose from when dealing with nations found guilty of religious persecution. This includes everything from public condemnation or cancellation of scientific and cultural exchanges to ending loans and tariff perks and restrictions on trade.

Religious Groups Close Ranks

Unlike the situation with the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, the Nickels-Lieberman scheme appears to have the support of most religious groups from the right to the mainstream Protestant denominations. FFRPA had the backing of Christian Coalition, other evangelicals and fundamentalists, some Jewish groups and the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops. The National Council of Churches, however, had opposed the FFRPA, suggesting that a blanket approach to sanctions may be ineffective, and could even result in a situation where religious minorities in offending nations would be blamed for whatever economic or social woes resulted from sanctions. Many foreign Christian groups were also skeptical of the House legislation. Rev. Raid Jarjour of the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut came to the U.S. last April, and told Capitol Hill legislators that the FFRPA evoked memories of the Crusades among Muslims in his part of the world. They feel this bill is a new Crusade in the sense that it's a new invasion of American foreign policy and some evangelical groups who want to convert Muslims.

Jarjour added, They see the bill as a way to create dissension between Christians and Muslims...

Concerns Remain...

Despite the agreement and backslapping on the Hill, though, concerns remain about the compromise version—International Religious Freedom Act—and the wider issue of sanctions in general. The business group USA-Engage, a coalition of companies and organizations involved in international trade, remains in opposition. We obviously think it's a bad bill, said Dan O'Flaherty of the National Foreign Trade Council, a USA-Engage member. There are also worries in the farm belt, where even conservative senators are looking twice at how sanctions could affect agricultural exports. We predict that this segment of the economy might even receive a double-barreled hit when the full impact of the Asian meltdown is felt. Produce growers are already feeling the pitch, and have launched expensive advertising campaigns to inflate domestic demand for their products. Other questions remain as well:

Why Atheists, Separationists Should Oppose IRFA

Perhaps the most blatant weakness of any version of this legislation—whether it is the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, or the compromise IRFA—is that it clearly puts the U.S. Government in the business of monitoring and emphasizing religious ideology, and incorporates religious belief as a key element in how foreign policy is conducted.

In fact, much of the concern over international religious persecution has to do with the approach of the new millennium, and with what many fundamentalists see as the End Times. Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network is a good example of the growing excitement in anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus, and the need to convert as many non-Christians before the millennium. This is one reason why at least some of the religious right groups supporting the FFRPA (and now even the compromise International Religious Freedom Amendment) have little interest in human rights for labor groups, women, journalists, intellectuals and political dissidents. Robertson's goal is to convert 500 million people in the so-called 10-40 Window, that area of the globe which covers most Islamic, Buddhist and Confucian societies, by the year 2000. This agenda centers on religious belief, not on gaining civil liberties, the right of workers to organize, free speech, sexual equality or anything which smacks of a secular civil liberties agenda.

The White House will be hard pressed to ignore the compromise version hammered out and incorporated into the International Religious Freedom Act. Business groups and other opponents of the measure, though, say that the Senate and the administration need to wait until the final report of the Senate Sanctions Task Force is completed. The 18-member Task Force was appointed last June 26, chaired by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Joseph Biden (D-DE) to look into the need for any reform of sanction legislation, and to evaluate the efficacy of such sanctions in the first place. Supporters of religious persecution legislation, though, intend to bring up IRFA as soon as possible, even if it means ignoring the Task Force report which is now one- month overdue. The November elections beckon, and feel good legislation on issues such as religious persecution is expected to play well with voters at home.