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
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
"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. …