Who asked you? The appropriateness of U.S. leadership in promoting religious freedom worldwide.

Author:Starr, Nichol Jeannette


Government endorsed and government imposed religious persecution is a growing phenomenon worldwide. From Central America to the Far East, people are arrested, tortured, and even killed for having and expressing their faith, despite the existence of universal covenants expressing acceptance of religious differences as among the most basic of human rights. Seeing the apparent futility of U.N. and other international efforts to curb such persecution, the U.S. Congress in 1998 passed the International Religious Freedom Act. Faith-based religious persecution--and the United States' role in combating it--first took center stage in American politics during the IRFA's passage, and most recently has surfaced again in the debates surrounding China's admittance to the World Trade Organization.

This Note examines the International Religious Freedom Act: its premises, language, function, and goals. It explains the role and actions of the newly-formed Commission on International Religious Freedom, the attempts by the U.S. Administration to explore diplomatic remedies for those suffering from religious persecution internationally, and what the U.S. must--and must not--do in its enforcement of the IRFA to best advocate the cause of religious freedom.


    The twentieth century has seen twenty-seven million martyrs, men and women who have died for their religious faith.(1) In contrast, the first nineteen centuries of the Christian era have seen a total of fourteen million.(2) An estimated two hundred million religious believers live under persecution and an additional four hundred million live under official discrimination today.(3)

    The following is a true account, not one that is ripped from the byline of the latest blockbuster film but instead experienced in the real world. Suffering has a face;(4) indeed, it has both a real face and a real story.

    Throughout his initial fifteen-year incarceration, Catholic Bishop Su Zhimin was subjected to grievous tortures at the hands of Chinese authorities.(5) His captors often beat him with boards and doors until the wood was reduced to splinters from the force of the beatings.(6) They hung him by his wrists and repeatedly beat him around the head.(7) They placed him in a cell, filled with water up to his hips, and left him there for days unable to sit or rest.(8) What had he done to deserve such punishment? Was the Bishop a hardened serial murderer or a master thief? No, his crime was simply his refusal to stop sharing his Christian faith with others.

    The Bishop's captors initially released him in 1993, but have since rearrested him on several occasions for the same reason.(9) Bishop Su Zhemin, now age 67, has been missing since October 8, 1997, the date of his last arrest.(10) The Chinese Government persistently denies any knowledge of his whereabouts.(11)

    This bishop is not the only one who suffers. Current reports from secular organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations lend support to the truth of these accounts. Amnesty revealed that among the common forms of government-endorsed or government-imposed religious persecution in China is the beating and torture of Christian women by authorities who deny them food and water, hang them by their thumbs from wires where they are beaten with heavy rods, and allow government leaders to shock them with electric probes.(12) According to the Human Rights Watch 1998 World Report, some eighty members of the underground church near Linchuan, Jiangxi Province were detained in December of 1996, where they were beaten and fined by the police simply because the group had plans to hold a large outdoor Christmas mass.(13) The expressed goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials involved in this effort in Jiangxi was to register these believers and force them to write letters denying their faith.(14)

    Once church members are arrested in these situations, authorities often confiscate some or all of their property.(15) They take parents away from their children and instill so much fear of arrest into family and friends that those who would otherwise help the abandoned families of these "enemies of the state" are effectively unable to do so.(16) While this injustice undeniably happens, China officially denies that it restricts religious freedom. When asked, the Chinese government points to a constitution which purports to guarantee a certain level of religious freedom for its citizens.(17) Revealing evidence like the accounts above, however, suggests otherwise.

    China is home to as many as fifty to one hundred million Christian believers, all but a fraction of whom are hidden from official eyes in an unregistered house church movement(18) that the Chinese government denies even exists.(19) They meet secretly in places like private homes, caves, and abandoned buildings for worship and prayer. If caught, they face arrest, torture, or years of forced labor. According to internal documents, the Chinese government aims to "eliminate" both the unregistered churches and every one of their individual members.(20)

    Meanwhile, in spite of these known abuses, the economically-advantaged China currently enjoys open trade relations with the United States pursuant to an annual agreement between the two countries and a long-term U.S. trade deficit with the foreign power.(21) President Clinton, who criticized President Bush for coddling dictators less than a decade ago, welcomed Chinese President Jiang Zemin as an honored guest to the White House in 1997, and again in 2000.(22) As a gesture of friendship and diplomacy, Clinton also welcomed Chinese commander General Chi, the militant general responsible for ordering the deaths of student protesters in the Tiananmen Square massacre, into the White House for lunch.(23) The U.S. President proceeded "with callous audacity" to commemorate the tenth anniversary of that massacre by recommending to Congress "Normal Trade Relations" (PNTR) status for China.(24) As of this note's publication date, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation that provides for permanent normal trade relations with China and supports its admittance to the World Trade Organization (WTO).(25) All of this happens in the United States while the unabated persecution and abuse continue abroad and while people like Bishop Su Zhemin and the millions in the persecuted church pray for relief. This is beyond persecution. For many, it has become a matter of life and death.

    Persecution like this is not limited to the Far East. All over the world, people of faith are suffering under predominately Islamic and former Communist governments who ban religious services and Bibles, and imprison missionaries and converts. In at least one nation, Christians are still being crucified for what they believe.(26) The stories(27) are horrifying:

    In Sudan, the present regime eradicates any non-Islamic expressions of people and controls the food supply of refugees dumped in the desert. Non-Muslims are given the choice of converting to Islam or being denied food, clothing and shelter. The unconverted are left to die, naked in the blazing sun. For the converted there is no turning back: Sudan applies the death penalty to anyone who tries to leave Islam.(28) In Russia, the government recently passed repressive laws targeting those of religious faith with the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a result, there is increasing official discrimination and violence against religious minorities with Jews, Protestants, Catholics and dissident orthodox groups all falling under attack.(29)

    Claiming to hear their cries, the United States, a world superpower and leading member of the United Nations, has vowed to make international religious freedom a foreign policy priority through potentially powerful domestic legislation. Their latest attempt to curb religious persecution around the world is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (hereinafter referred to as IRFA).(30) With the IRFA, the United States now has the potential authority to promote both religious tolerance and freedom and to condemn persecution of all religious faiths in every country, including China.(31)

    Of course, such a responsibility cannot be effectively assumed without concrete evidence of the size of the task at hand. Pursuant to the terms of the IRFA, the first two Annual Reports on religious freedom were released in September 1999 and September 2000, the first marking the culmination of eighteen months of study on the status of religious freedom in over 180 countries worldwide.(32) With all the evidence that has now been obtained as a result, new questions arise over whether the United States was in its right place and doing the right thing when it passed the IRFA. If so, does this Act have any true bite or is it simply political rhetoric which reflects a true commitment on the part of the United States to alleviating religious persecution? How will offending nations respond to the Act, or will they bother to respond at all? What will and should the United States do in response if that occurs?

    This Note will address the above questions. Part I will discuss the prior attempts of the United Nations and United States to champion the cause of faith-related international policy. Part II will outline the provisions of the United States' most recent attempt, the IRFA. Part III will reveal the conclusions of the IRFA's first two Annual Reports and discuss the United States' current position with China, which the Reports found to be one of the most egregious offenders of the IRFA. Part IV will expose the strengths and the weaknesses of the IRFA, and what the United States may have to do differently if it proposes to effectively lead in this area of international human rights.


    In 1948, members of the United Nations pledged to...

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