1 May 2000 (Newsroom) — A panel commissioned by the United States to monitor religious freedom issued its first report on Monday, calling for measures to be taken against China and Sudan if they fail to improve their treatment of religious believers. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also warned that religious liberty in Russia is in danger of taking a turn for the worse.
The report is mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 which was established by Congress to ensure that religious freedom is given a permanent place in U.S. foreign policy considerations. The State Department issued its own report last September that reviewed religious freedom in 194 nations. The report of the 10-member panel, which includes experts from a variety of faiths, focuses on three countries and is designed to provide the government with an independent perspective.
The commission is urging Congress to deny Permanent Normal Trade Relations status to China unless Beijing shows measurable improvement in religious freedom according to international human rights standards. The panel notes that China's "violation of religious freedom increased markedly during the past year." A nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement continues along with increased repression against Roman Catholic and Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, and ethnic Uighur Muslims, the report said.
Included on the panel's list of recommended requirements for China is ratification of the signed International Convention on Civil and Political Rights; the opening of high-level, ongoing talks with the U.S. on religious freedom issues; and release of all religious prisoners.
Congress is expected to vote later this month on a landmark trade deal with China that would grant permanent trade status and pave the way for Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization. Proponents of increasing trade links with China argue that more exposure to democratic countries and standards will lead to improvements in human rights.
Judy Chen of New York-based Human Rights in China believes that both dialogue and engagement are needed. "We are hoping that while there are overtures to engage with China, that there is still an effort to put pressure on them," she said.
The commission's report called Sudan "the worldâ€™s most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief." The panel acknowledged many factors in Sudan's 17-year-old civil war, but said that religious factors are "key." The militant Islamic government of Khartoum is trying to extend Islamic law to the mostly Christian and animist south and impose extremist interpretations of Islam on other Muslims, the commission report said. In a separate report issued Monday, Sudan was one of seven nations that made the U.S. State Department's annual list of countries that sponsor terrorism.
The panel favors diplomatic solutions to resolving the conflict, but advocates providing "non-lethal" aid to the rebels if the Khartoum government does not show significant changes within a year. One commission member, Muslim leader Laila Al Marayati, gave a dissenting opinion in the report, arguing that the Sudanese People's Liberation Army has committed human rights abuses of its own. She also noted that food and other types of non-lethal aid can be exchanged for weapons.
The commission's executive director, Steven McFarland, said that one of the early tangible results of the Religious Freedom Act is its success in helping discourage American investment in Sudan's oil pipeline project. The panel contends that "There is a critical linkage between oil and gas production and human rights violations in Sudan," as profits are used to finance the war against the south.
The commission took particular note of China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), which owns 40 percent of the Greater Petroleum Operating Company, the developer of Sudan's oil fields. The CNPC originally expected a $10 billion initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange but came in at $3 billion after restructuring itself. CNPC placed its domestic operations in a wholly owned subsidiary, PetroChina Company Limited, which made the IPO.
"There has been a grassroots divestment campaign, but the commission has had the legal power to get the information that we did from the Treasury Department and the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and put it into a public report that caused the CNPC" to change plans.
Joseph Assad, who monitors religion in Sudan with Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House, said he also welcomes the commission's recommendations to prevent companies that do business with Khartoum from raising money in U.S. capital markets. He notes though that PetroChina was allowed to introduce its IPO without having to disclose where the money is being invested.
The commission report pointed out that PetroChina's registration statement said that some of CNPC's proceeds might go into retirement of its debt, but left unclear whether any of that debt was incurred in developing the Sudan oil fields. The commission wants the U.S. government to require any foreign corporation engaged in the development of the oil and gas fields in Sudan to disclose whether it intends to use the proceeds from an IPO for that project, the commission said.
"I hope this will send a clear message to other companies, if the administration will act on these recommendations," Assad said.
The commission wants the president to launch a "vigorous campaign" that would inform the world of Sudan's "war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocidal activities." McFarland believes that the State Department should label Sudan's actions against Christians and animists as genocide according to the 1948 Geneva Convention, which would then require action.
"If it is called genocide, we would be authorized to bring a prosecution to take steps to stop the genocide," McFarland said. "It would be incumbent upon the signatories to do something about it. That's why we think it's more than symbolic. Too many times it has been used far after the fact, such as in Cambodia. We don't want to see that be the epitaph for Sudan, six years later, after it's all over, to say it was genocidal activity."
Although the commissioners believe that Russia's human rights situation is not comparable with Sudan's or China's, they decided to focus on the country because of its influence in the region, and "the fact that the condition of religious freedom in Russia could deteriorate in the near future." The commission recommended that President-elect Vladimir Putin be pressed to reverse a new amendment to the controversial law on religion, requiring dissolution of churches that fail to register with the government by the end of December. That recommendation likely will fall on deaf ears, said Lauren Homer, an attorney in St. Louis, Missouri, who helps U.S.-based mission groups gain permission to operate in foreign countries.
"If this is something we care about we should help the Russian government, NGOs, and religious freedom lawyers deal with the massive volume" of applications that remain unprocessed, she said. "They are understaffed, and most of these groups need a lawyer" to help complete the forms.
An estimated 7,000 churches and religious groups have not yet registered, she said. "Unless there is a major effort starting now, â€¦ by year's end it will be 5,000." Churches that have not registered must be dissolved under terms of legislation the Duma passed in March when it extended for one year the registration deadline.
McFarland agrees that much of the backlog can be attributed to a lack of resources. "They don't have the infrastructure to process all of these registrations in a huge country," he said. "In addition, however, there is the concern that after December 31, will the local officials pick and choose which disfavored churches get liquidated? Will there be equality under the law, or will the Russian Orthodox Church be untouched and Baptist, Pentecostals, and others be liquidated?"
Homer has a colleague who wants to put forms and directions for filling them out on a CD for distribution throughout Russia, a process that would cost about $30,000. But financial appeals to religious and legal groups in the U.S. have been unsuccessful, the attorney said. "This is a key thing," she said. "Churches can't operate unless they have the right legal foundation. We need to figure out a way to help churches comply with the law to help get the gospel out. â€¦ Groups that fund rule of law issues are more secular. Churches are more interested in evangelization. To me that's the biggest problem."
Homer said her experience in Russia suggests that the government would accept legal help if it were offered. "We should try to help Russia figure out how to deal with it."
In the May 1 commission report, the panel praised the State Department and the Office of International Religious Freedom for the quality and timeliness of its September 1999 survey. Robert Seiple, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom and a non-voting member of the panel, supervised the 1,000-plus page review.
The commission suggested, however, that the State Department report could be improved by prioritizing and evaluating information and placing it in context. The panel also said that reporting should be "undistorted by foreign policy considerations other than the promotion of religious freedom."
McFarland believes that foreign policy considerations caused Saudi Arabia, for example, to be left off the list of "countries of particular concern," requiring punitive measures by the president. "I think there was tremendous pressure not to embarrass the kingdom by not putting them on the list with such luminaries as (Slobodan) Milosevic, Saddam (Hussein), and Beijing," McFarland said. "That would be a country I would keep an eye on as to whether it belongs on the list."
The report also expressed the commission's concern about documents denied to them by the State Department regarding the partial lifting of the U.S. ban on importation of gum arabic from Sudan. Under the International Religious Freedom Act, the commission can secure information from any federal agency or department that it considers necessary. McFarland said, however, that he does not believe that the government is withholding the information without rationale. "They are interested in protecting their rights to authority under separation of powers according to the constitution — to not be taking their orders on forming policy from Congress," McFarland explained. "It is a troubling and serious difference of opinion, but it is not a groundless position."
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