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CAMPAIGN-FREEDOM Jul-14-2004 (1,150 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10. xxxn

Campaign '04: Religious freedom not on candidates' radar screen

By Jeff Johnson
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- "Religious freedom does not seem to be on the radar screen" in the 2004 race for president, according to Trinitarian Father Stan DeBoe, director of justice and peace at the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

"I have not heard it mentioned once" by either presidential campaign, the former aide to Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told Catholic News Service.

The situation was very different a few years ago, when "a strong interest in the issue of religious liberty in many offices in Washington" led to passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Father DeBoe said.

That legislation established at the State Department the Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an ambassador-at-large, and the Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent commission. Since then, Father DeBoe said, interest in international religious freedom has waned.

This drop-off might be in part a result of the homeland security climate that has consumed the country since Sept. 11, 2001.

"Our nation has been wounded," wrote the U.S. bishops in their 2003 document, "Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, " but "Sept. 11 and what followed have taught us that no amount of military strength, economic power or technological advances can truly guarantee security, prosperity or progress."

While the bishops recognize the importance of security at home and abroad, they suggest that the country cannot forget its role as a promoter of "moral principles," including "more concerted efforts to ensure the promotion of religious liberty and other human rights."

"Our nation has been blessed," said the bishops, but "our prosperity does not reach far enough." They suggested more can be accomplished through better financial and political support of the United Nations and other international organizations working toward improvements in religious freedom.

In its 2004 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom listed "violations of the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of religion or belief." It highlighted problems in Sudan, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Iran and France and criticized the lack of U.S. actions to improve conditions in those countries.

The commission still largely focuses on religious freedom violations in Islamic and communist nations while ignoring other significant violators, added Father DeBoe. There is no mention in the report of Israel's religious freedom violations such as closing religious-sponsored schools and preventing travel of religious aid workers.

A May 7 letter to President Bush signed by several American leaders of missionary groups highlights the "crisis in the Holy Land confronting Christian Palestinians, Christian institutions, and those who wish to visit the birthplace of Christianity." Two months later, the letter had not been answered.

Another issue that will face the next administration will be what Nina Shea calls "the hard-line Islamic movement on the march" throughout the world.

Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House and the commission's vice chairwoman, mentioned the "early genocide" in Sudan as an example. The U.S. foreign policy will have to work with Muslim countries that are increasingly seeing internal political criticism and dissent as blasphemy and encourage them to remain open, she said.

In Saudi Arabia, religious freedom "does not exist by an internationally recognized standard," said John V. Hanford III, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in congressional testimony in February.

In spite of this, Saudi Arabia has not been designated by the State Department as a country of particular concern, said Father DeBoe.

In the same testimony, Hanford, appointed by Bush in 2001, also called attention to Vietnam's increasing persecution of ethnic minority Protestants. He commended U.S. work in Afghanistan in the development of that country's Constitution that allows for freedom of worship for non-Muslim people.

Sen. John F. Kerry "will engage other countries directly" on the issue of religious intolerance, said Jin Chon, a spokesman for the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate. Kerry views religious freedom within the larger context of human rights, and "as president, Kerry will continue to look for effective ways to promote human rights, including religious freedom," added Chon.

A spokeswoman at the White House, Maria Tamburri, referred questions on Bush's policy on religious freedom to Hanford. He told CNS July 14 that he was not "aware of a single nation that violates religious freedom that is not also a risk to security in its region."

Religious freedom is "paramount in the president's mind and heart," he added. Hanford feels the country is poised to make international religious freedom "a cornerstone of a sound foreign policy." A representative of the Bush campaign did not return calls.

Issues of religious freedom also touch on the way the United States deals with people who seek asylum from religious persecution. A "more generous immigration and refugee policy" also could assist those who seek refuge from religious persecution, said the annual report of the commission. It called for better coordination among "efforts to promote religious freedom and to provide access" to U.S. refugee and asylum programs."

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., said that in this current "homeland security mentality" refugees have had a tougher time entering and remaining in the United States. In December 2003 the bishop, a commission member, visited refugees seeking asylum based on human rights and found that they were well taken care of.

However, he said more work remains to be done to make the United States "a more benevolent receiver of refugees." He said that it is part of U.S. history to take in refugees and immigrants.

"We have room for more refugees," he said. In terms of the national economy, far from hurting it, refugees have always added to the economy, he added.

Kerry's spokesman said the senator "believes that refugees across the world need our support." He also said the senator "knows that past persecution and a well-founded fear of persecution on account of religion are grounds for asylum and refugee status under the law."

Along these lines, the senator, if elected, plans to work to improve training for U.S. officials who handle the claims of asylum seekers, Chon said. Kerry has recently called on the U.N. Security Council to impose tough sanctions on the government of Sudan.

President Bush in a speech outlining the details of a new immigration policy did not mention those seeking asylum from religious persecution. But neither does the Democratic plan, put forth in May 2004.

Both presidential candidates say they strongly support international religious freedom. The crux of the issue, however, as pointed out by "Faithful Citizenship," is how the United States will continue to work for human rights throughout the world given the radical changes in perspective as a result of the terrorist attacks and the ongoing war against terrorism.

With the United States so intently focused on homeland security, some might wonder if the country has let slip its traditional role as defender and promoter of human rights, including religious liberty.


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