1998 NCC News Archives

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International Delegation of Religious Leaders Discuss
Religious Persecution, Best Strategies for Combating It

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 30, 1998 ---- Sanctions-oriented proposals currently before the U.S. Congress that seek to end religious persecution abroad instead could "build walls, not break down walls" between Christians and people of other faiths, and between people of faith and their governments. In fact, the proposals already are exacerbating tensions within nations likely to be the targets of sanctions.

That is the report from members of a delegation of seven religious leaders from five different regions of the world who spent April 27-30 in New York City and Washington, D.C., meeting with members of Congress, U.S. religious leaders and news media by invitation of the National Council of Churches.

"Persecution of religious or any other nature is not acceptable," affirmed Bishop Sammy Azariah, delegation member who is Moderator of the Church of Pakistan. "We are all working against religious persecution. But economic sanctions oppress the very people who are trying to live normally.

"And the proposed legislation could in fact have a negative impact on Christians where our percentages are small" (1-1/2 percent in Pakistan in the last census), he said. "The church is making efforts toward improving interfaith relations that would be hampered by the passing of this legislation."

The NCC and partners worldwide have expressed particular concern about the sanctions-oriented proposals in the Wolf/Specter Bill (Freedom from Religious Persecution Act), which they fear would, in many countries, do more harm than good for the very people it seeks to protect, said the Rev. Dr. Albert Pennybacker, NCC Associate General Secretary for Public Policy.

"We believe sanctions should be a matter of thoughtful, multilateral last resort, to be imposed only in consultation with the people they are intended to help," he said. For example, churches in South Africa asked the international community -- not just the U.S. -- to campaign for sanctions – and that was only after years of other efforts failed. "We are not hearing calls today from our overseas partners" for unilateral sanctions like those proposed in the Wolf/Specter bill, he said.

"We further oppose any ‘hierarchy’ of persecutions, asking equal treatment -- for example, by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service -- for all who suffer any kind of human rights abuse," Dr. Pennybacker said.

The seven religious leaders – from Pakistan, Russia, Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia – were asked by the NCC to address the realities of religious persecution in their respective countries, what they see as the likely impact of U.S. intervention, and how the United States could be most helpful in ensuring religious liberty in their countries.

Christian and Muslim leaders from Indonesia agreed that a sanctions-oriented approach is "not wise for us in Indonesia."

"If Washington, D.C., takes strong measures, it will create more tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims," said Dr. Amien Rais, Chairman of Muhamadiyah, a nationwide Muslim community of 28 million Indonesians. "Economic sanctions are dangerous because of the social and economic impact on vulnerable people." But he expressed support for more subtle pressures for improvements in human rights, such as the International Monetary Fund’s "slowdown" in transmitting the second installment of its loan to Indonesia.

Indonesia is more than 87 percent Muslim, with 10 percent of the population Christian. Said the Rev. Dr. Joseph M. Pattiasina, General Secretary of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, "We have to increase the dialogue. If (sanctions-oriented legislation) passes, it will jeopardize the whole relationship."

Much more helpful than an approach that shames or punishes, the religious leaders said, would be for the United States to support people of faith who are working together against religious persecution and for better relations among faith groups. For example, the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA), Russian Chapter, brings together a broad group of religious leaders who are appealing to their nation’s Constitutional Court to rescind what they judge to be unconstitutional portions of the new laws affecting religious liberty.

Said Mr. Anatoly Krasikov, that chapter’s president, a combative approach by the U.S. government could help feed nationalistic, isolationistic tendencies that are threatening Russia’s fragile democracy. Instead, Mr. Krasikov encouraged the U.S. to establish as many ties as possible with Russia, and to recognize the integrity of IRLA/Russia’s work for a more just law.

Delegation members raised several other "caution flags" concerning the proposed U.S. legislation. Political pressures and U.S. economic interests could make it hard to implement fairly, they said. And while there are indeed times when intervention on behalf of persecuted people is necessary, the intervention should be multilateral, not unilateral. For example, the U.S. has imposed sanctions against the Sudan, but they "are not working because they are unilateral," said the Rev. Canon Clement Janda, General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches and former General Secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches in his native Sudan.

"Persecution also feeds on scarcity and poverty," said Dr. Pennybacker. "We must address these questions within a developmental context."

Hosting the delegation was the Rev. Dr. Joan B. Campbell, General Secretary, National Council of Churches. At the group’s first meeting, April 27 in New York City, Dr. Campbell urged participants to "tell the story of your own country and your own people. We in the NCC can address the proposed legislation and try to keep it from being unhelpful or destructive. But there’s no way the NCC can tell your story. Only you can."

The NCC, founded in 1950, is the nation’s leading ecumenical organization. 34 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, with a combined U.S. membership of nearly 52 million, join as NCC members in a broad program of mission and service.

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