Religious-Persecution Bill Passes in House

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Legislation designed to ease the plight of persecuted religious minorities abroad passed the House May 14 with broad bipartisan support, despite the Clinton administration's continued opposition to the measure. Called the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, the bill passed on a 373-41 vote with 169 Democrats joining 206 Republicans in support of it. The measure has the backing of a host of evangelical Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders.

The lopsided support prompted Frank R. Wolf (R., Va.), the bill's principle House sponsor, to proclaim that "this is a message of religious freedom that all those who are persecuted around the world can take great heart from." Despite Wolf's optimism, however, the measure faces an uncertain future.

The White House has signaled its intention to veto the bill, and a competing Senate bill introduced by Don Nickles (R., Okla.) has the support of Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The House measure would establish a State Department Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring and authorize economic sanctions against nations that engage in systematic religious persecution. Among the listed sanctions are the denial of all nonhumanitarian aid and the export of military hardware.

The bill also makes it easier for refugees claiming religious persecution to gain entry into the U.S. In addition, it singles out Sudan for its alleged egregious persecution of Christians and continues indefinitely sanctions already levied against that nation by the White House. A last-minute amendment offered by Michael Bilirakis (R., Fla.) urged the Turkish government to give greater protection to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, the Eastern Orthodox leader whose Istanbul compound has come under violent attack. The bill, said Benjamin A. Gilman (R., N.Y.), "sends a long-overdue signal to repressive governments that their repulsive behavior will not be tolerated and that we're not just going to talk about it."

The president has the option under the bill to waive all sanctions if they are deemed counterproductive in a particular case or out of national security concerns. The White House has noted that some minority religious leaders facing persecution in their homelands have warned that passage of the bill could make their situation worse by angering their countries' governments. …