Since the 1970s, there has been a vigorous and welcome debate in this country over the place of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. Only relatively recently, however, has religious liberty become an important part of this wider human rights debate. There is growing awareness that religious freedom has too often been overlooked, and a growing conviction that core American values must help shape the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Significant developments include:
- In May 1999, the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad (which included two Catholic Bishops) issued its important Final Report on how the United States can better promote respect for religious liberty abroad.
- In October 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was enacted. IRFA, which the USCC supported, makes the promotion of religious freedom an explicit U.S. foreign policy goal. The law provides a flexible menu of policy options for responding to the most serious violations, and better integrates religious liberty concerns into U.S. foreign policy by creating a new office for religious freedom, providing for improved training and monitoring, and requiring new annual reports by the State Department. The law covers all religious freedom violations in all countries, without preference.
- IRFA also creates a new nine-member U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors religious freedom violations and make policy recommendations to the Administration and Congress. This commission, which began its work in June 1999, includes Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C. The commission issues its own annual report on the status of religious liberty.
The Significance of Religious Freedom. While there is new public attention to religious liberty, this is not a new issue for the USCC. From the Soviet bloc and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s to China and Sudan today, the Bishops have worked against religious persecution and discrimination, which Pope John Paul II has called "intolerable and unjustifiable violation[s]..of the most fundamental human freedom, that of practicing one's faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living." The USCC's work on religious liberty is part of our broader effort to ensure that promotion of human rights is a central concern of U.S. policy, and that U.S. aid and trade are linked to a country's human rights performance.
Human Rights Conventions. The USCC supported U.S. ratification of the torture and genocide conventions; and the covenants on race, and civil and political rights; and supports ratification of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. U.S. participation in these and other human rights instruments is critical for the strengthening of international norms and adding credibility to its own efforts to promote greater respect for religious liberty and other basic rights.
Specific Cases. Dozens of countries violate religious freedom, often as part of a general disrespect for human rights. The USCC has focused, among others, on the following:
China. The USCC has opposed the annual extension of Normal Trade Relations (NTR), (formerly Most Favored Nation Trade Status) to China due to serious violations of religious freedom and other human rights abuses. Regrettably, the U.S. Congress extended permanent NTR to China last year. The USCC will continue to monitor and press for greater religious liberty in China. Of particular concern is the persecution of religious groups, such as the unregistered Protestant and Catholic churches, and the intrusive interference by the state in the internal life of the "open" or recognized churches. The persecution and control of Tibetan Buddhism is especially shameful and well known.
Cuba. Freedom to fully practice one's beliefs has increased considerably in recent years, notably since the January 1998 papal visit, but the state still maintains excessive control over almost every aspect of daily life. The early years of outright persecution, expulsion of clergy, and confiscation of religious properties are past, but the Church is still restricted in receiving pastoral workers from abroad or in gaining access to communications media, and is still prevented from conducting its own schools.
Russia. A 1997 law on religion discriminates against minority religions and potentially subjects them to arbitrary actions by officials, especially at the local level. Implementation of the law has been mixed. Some of the worst fears have not come to pass, but the Catholic Church and other minority religions continue to face problems obtaining legal recognition for some of their activities.
Sudan. Years of civil conflict in Sudan have been greatly exacerbated by the efforts of the Khartoum government to impose an extreme interpretation of Islamic law on the country. Christians, moderate Muslims, and other minority groups have suffered terribly from indiscriminate bombing, starvation, slavery, and other human rights abuses. In 16 years, some two million have been killed and twice that number have been displaced. In areas under government control, minority religions face numerous restrictions; arrests and torture of those considered dissidents are common.
Vietnam. While extensive restrictions on religious freedom still exist, the last two years have seen considerable improvement, especially in relations between the Catholic Church and the government. Long delays before allowing candidates for the priesthood and religious life to enter seminaries and novitiates continue to be almost routine. Although the state still insists on maintaining excessive controls over all religious practice, its need for ever greater contact and trade with the rest of the world has apparently led to the lessening of some restrictions on religious life.
USCC statements on human rights (2/96; 3/97; 11/98); religious freedom legislation (2/98; 6/98; 9/98; 10/98); China (5/97; 6/99), Cuba (5/98; 6/98; 12/98), East Timor (7/94; 6/99; 9/99; 3/00), India (2/99), Indonesia (6/00;7/00), Pakistan (12/98), Russia (9/97; 5/99), Sudan (3/00; 9/00, 11/00), Vietnam (11/99) (www.usccb.org/sdwp).
U.S. Department of State, Final Report, Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad (May 1999) and report on religious freedom (Sept. 2000) (www.state.gov)
Commission on International Religious Freedom, Report on U.S. Policy (May 2000) (www.uscirf.gov)
For further information: Walt Grazer 202-541-3199 (ph); 202-541-3339 (fax);