While making her early rounds, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has let everyone know that she's concerned about religious persecution.
As the State Department released its 1996 human rights reports, she noted that "religious persecution and intolerance" are "plagues that from ancient times have fomented war and deep-seated resentment. In too many countries -- from Sudan to Vietnam to Iran -- this form of repression persists. In a few, including China, it has increased. Whatever your culture, whatever your creed, the right to worship is basic."
During last week's first meeting of her religious freedom advisory committee, Albright added: "The right to profess and practice one's religion is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ... The principle is the same whether our specific focus is on the harassment of Christians, the persecution of Jews, the denial of rights to the Baha'is or the Buddhists, or violence against Islam."
So far, so good. But it will be harder to speak out in Beijing than inside the Beltway and many diplomats balk when it comes time to link sacred rites with corporate rights. Also, there is more to religious liberty than worship. People also have the right to proclaim their faith, to proselytize, to be politically active and to obey a pope. This is especially true in lands such as China, where believers are forced to "profess" their faith by registering with Communist authorities and "practice" their faith by bending the knee in government-sanctioned sanctuaries.
Meanwhile, the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad faces its own challenges. Many Capitol Hill conservatives are furious because the 20-member panel includes only two evangelical Christians, along with leaders and academics from Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Judaism, liberal Protestantism, Islam, the Baha'is and other traditions. Also, the White House instructed the panel to address broad issues such as "toleration" and "reconciliation," even though it was formed in response to highly specific cases of persecution of evangelicals and Catholics. Above all, ask the critics, can the state department be trusted to investigate its own policies?
Debates about the panel's membership highlight another fact about "religious freedom" -- these words are hard to define. Often, it's hard to say where efforts to defend a nation's cultural heritage stop and "religious persecution" begins. One faith's concept of evangelism will almost certainly be heresy to shepherds whose sheep are being evangelized.
After its first meeting, the advisory committee released a statement that alluded to this tension: "The significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind. Nevertheless, it is the duty of states, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect religious freedom."
Meanwhile, clashes continue in the Balkans. Reports from China indicate that Washington, D.C., politicos may soon be discussing Chinese martyrs, as well as Chinese entrepreneurs, arms merchants, software pirates and spies. Still, events in other parts of the world have received little ink. In the Sudan, the government has burned Christian villages, kidnapped children as slaves and tortured worshipers and clergy. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that nine Coptic Christians died when Muslim extremists sprayed a church youth group with machine guns. In Kuwait, Reuters reported that a prominent convert to Christianity named Robert Hussein has reverted to Islam, after receiving what many saw as a death sentence. In Pakistan, a thousand Christian families fled when rioters looted homes and burned churches.
It would be wrong to blame this bloody litany on Islam or any other specific religion, stressed a conservative Jewish activist. Persecution has more to do with renegades, militants and dictators than with doctrine.
"We patronize Islam when we say, `Oh, we know who those people are. We know what they are like. They are into killing and murdering, into persecution.' They are not -- the thugs are," said Michael Horowitz, of the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. "In that battle for the soul of Islam, vulnerable Christians are the battleground. Protecting them protects all in those parts of the world struggling to define whether they stay in the dark ages ... or enter the 21st century."