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World: Senate Debates International Religion Bill

Washington, 13 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. Senator says the International Religious Freedom Act currently under debate in the Senate will permit America to take swift and strong action against countries that suppress religious freedom.

Senator Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma) made the statement Tuesday in Washington during a hearing on the proposed legislation.

Nickles, who is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate, says the proposed legislation would require the U.S. president to take direct action against countries that engage in religious persecution.

Among the proposed actions outlined in the bill are economic and political sanctions, as well as public condemnation.

Nickles says the legislation would also establish a process that would ensure the U.S. closely monitors religious persecution on an ongoing basis. He says the legislation provides flexibility and will not force the president into any one course of action. He says the president will be given discretion to adjust the response to each country's individual situation.

Says Nickels: "This bill seeks to ensure that the U.S. government aggressively monitors religious oppression around the world and takes decisive action against those regimes engaged in persecution, all the while maintaining the integrity and credibility of the U.S.'s foreign policy system."

In fact, one of the most important provisions of the bill, says Nickels, is the definition of religious persecution. He says the definition includes not only imprisonment, torture and death, but also the inability of one to speak freely about one's religion and the right to switch religions.

Nickels says that if the definition of religious persecution was limited only to torture, imprisonment or death, it would not include 90 to 95 percent of the world's most prevalent forms of religious persecution -- the inability to practice one's religion.

Nickles says an example of the importance of this distinction is the recently passed law in Russia that puts restrictions on the activities of churches in Russia that have not been there for 15 years or more.

Says Nickles: "Despite the fact that more than 90 senators voted to take action against the Russian government for passing this law, Russia would escape any action if we limited it to only the most severe type of persecution. Clearly, under our bill, Russia would be held accountable for its actions."

Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), the other co-sponsor of the bill, says he also considers Russia to be a major offender of religious rights.

Lieberman told the hearing: "Last summer Russia passed one of the most restrictive laws since the Soviet era, effectively shutting down a tremendous number of independent churches and religious organizations, and severely restricting the religious freedoms of its citizens."

But John Shattuck, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, urged the Senate not to be hasty in approving such broad legislation.

Shattuck says the State Department has "major concerns" about the bill, adding that legislation best serves the goal of promotion and upholding religious freedom when it strengthens existing mechanisms rather than creating new ones.

Shattuck says he is troubled by the bill's requirement forcing the U.S. president to impose one or more of sixteen executive actions and economic sanctions on any country identified as engaging in or tolerating religious persecution. Says Shattuck: "We believe that the sanction's provisions will be counterproductive. While the imposition of sanctions is likely to have little direct impact on most governments engaged in abuses, it runs the risk of strengthening the hand of those governments and extremists who seek to incite religious intolerance."

Shattuck says he is also concerned about the bill's definition of religious persecution. He says the State Department agrees that all violations of the right to religious freedom are important and deserve to be addressed. But he adds they should not all be categorized as religious persecution, which has a particular meaning in domestic and international law.

Explains Shattuck: "With so broad a definition, the term would lose its meaning and power, thus making it difficult for the U.S. to address serious or widespread violations and secure positive change."

Shattuck says U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have already made the promotion and protection of religious freedom a foreign policy priority.

He says a better approach would be to have the U.S. State Department and Congress work closely together to improve current methods of monitoring and responding to religious persecution rather than passing new legislation.

The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate on Thursday.