Cry Is Heard to Fight for Freedom of Faith US TO WATCH OVER MINORITY RELIGIONS

Article excerpt

Based on scattered reports and anecdotal evidence, the 1990s is not proving to be a happy time for persons of minority faiths.

From China to the Sudan to Eastern Europe, religious persecution and harassment appear to be rising. Yet issues of freedom of religion abroad have not been given close attention by the United States government, or by many human rights groups.

As a Clinton administration official told the Monitor, "We lost track after the Soviet Jewry movement. There's really no 'Amnesty International' of religion to inform us how bad the problem is." In the next month, however, American officials in a small State Department office will help establish a special advisory committee that will begin to track religious persecution, make recommendations to the White House, and even help the memberships of various faiths act in concert against harassment. Made up of an impressive list of 20 American scholars and religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox, Muslim, and other traditions, the committee will meet for the first time in February. Currently, no official body in the US acts as a liaison to the nation's religious community or presses to implement Article 18 of both the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee "freedom of thought, religion, and conscience" and freedom from coercion in matters of faith. Yet critics, many of them conservative Christians and Jews, say the new committee is only window dressing. They claim that the Clinton administration's foreign policy has ignored human rights, including those of minority faiths abroad. Clear violations of religious freedom Even State Department sources agree that a disinterest in religious matters in the elite secular culture of the US Foreign Service, combined with a decline in human rights priorities after the cold war, has resulted in scant attention paid to religious freedoms. "It is not inaccurate to say these issues have been neglected," says an American official close to the new committee. "But they haven't been singled out for neglect. The whole area is terra incognita for us." Clearly, there are many violations of the UN religious freedom articles. For example: *During 1996, China imprisoned hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks in an ongoing crackdown on believers. Roman Catholic leaders were imprisoned, and three Christian evangelicals were killed, for worshipping independently of state-authorized churches. Last spring, nearly 15,000 churches, temples, and religious grave sites were destroyed in the coastal province of Zhejiang. *In October, an Assemblies of God leader in Iran, the Rev. Mohammed Bagher Yusefi, was found dead under suspicious circumstances - the fourth Iranian Protestant leader to die mysteriously since 1994. Yet that figure pales when compared with the dozens of leaders of Bahai's National Spiritual Assembly in Iran who have been jailed or killed. *In Indonesia's East Java region in October, 25 Christian churches were burned and five people killed in religious riots involving Muslims and Christians. *In southern Sudan, Christians are routinely imprisoned and, as two Western reporters discovered earlier this year, their children have been sold as slaves. *Buddhist monks in Cambodia and Vietnam are systematically arrested and imprisoned. What is not clear is the scope of the problem. No comprehensive human rights reports of the type done on political, gender, or ethnic rights violations have been undertaken. Amnesty International documented religious persecutions in China in 1995 and 1996, and the State Department's annual report has a section on religion. But there is a lack of basic country-by-country assessments weighing physical torture of Coptic Christians in Egypt, for example, with more widespread but less visible harassment like denial of the right to assemble or to possess religious texts, employment discrimination, or the various minor prejudices that makes daily life difficult for groups such as Catholics and evangelicals in Ukraine. …