October 17, 2000

Defending the Faiths – religious persecution (Allen D. Hertzke and Daniel Philpott, Fall 2000, National Interest)

MANY OF today’s foreign policy challenges–from Russian weakness and Iraqi aggression to Balkan instability and the rise of China–were anticipated during the waning days of the Cold War. One issue, however, has taken the foreign affairs community completely by surprise: global religious persecution.

A worldwide report by two British researchers, Kevin Boyle and Juliet Sheen, notes, “Religious persecution of minority faiths, forcible conversion, desecration of religious sites, the proscribing of beliefs and pervasive discrimination, killings and torture, are daily occurrences at the end of the twentieth century.” The victims include Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and animists. The perpetrators include communist governments (China, Laos, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea), Islamist regimes (Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan), other Islamic states under pressure from militants (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Algeria), and authoritarian regimes such as Iraq, Serbia and Burma.

In response to such persecution, the cause of religious freedom, which until recently was the passion of a small cadre of Christian activists, has today become the subject of talk shows, op-ed pieces, government reports and even official legislation. A movement on behalf of persecuted Christians and other religious minorities blossomed in the 1990s, sparking congressional hearings, which, in turn, prompted the Clinton administration to act more forcefully against violations of religious freedom abroad. Hoping to stave off more vigorous legislative action, in 1996 the administration created a State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom, which was followed in 1997 by a congressionally mandated State Department report on the persecution of Christians abroad. In that same year, Madeleine Albright instructed American embassies to emphasize religious freedom in their human rights reports and to nurture contacts with local religious figures.

Then, in the fall of 1998, Congress passed the landmark International Religious Freedom Act, enshrining religious freedom as a basic aim of American foreign policy The law creates new offices at the State Department and the National Security Council devoted to the issue; funds “soft” initiatives to advance the legal protection of religious practice; requires an annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world; establishes an independent commission to monitor violations; and recommends presidential action against violating countries.

With a few exceptions, the mainstream media and foreign policy commentariat have reacted coolly to these developments, suspecting that the attention the issue has received is merely a sop to conservative Christian lobbies. But, pursued wisely, the elevation of religious freedom can properly serve the national interest. It is congruent not only with international human rights covenants, but with our founding tradition and basic values. It complements the promotion of civil society and democracy, and it may easily be pursued in tandem with our other interests.