Spreading the seeds of freedom

Posted: May 08, 2006 12:05 AM

In nations like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, state-sponsored religious persecution often infects other areas of civil society and stifles other personal freedoms. The case of Hao Wu in China demonstrates this reality.

On February 22nd, the Chinese government arrested Mr. Wu, a filmmaker who, after spending twelve years in the U.S. -- including a few years in my state as a legal permanent resident -- recently returned to his native China to create a documentary on the underground church movement. Although Chinese officials have not given any explanation for his detainment, it seems clear from his ongoing detention that his film project was an irritant to the Chinese government, the same government the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently recommended be kept on the State Department’s list of "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs): nations whose human rights records are particularly execrable and warrant particular attention. 

Beijing officially recognizes only state-approved churches and permits only them to meet in public. Recognition of non-sanctioned churches or religious groups comes in the form of arrests, beatings, and persecution of Christians, Buddhists, the Falun Gong, and in some cases, similar treatment for their family members as well. What makes Mr. Wu’s case unique is that he is not a member of any religious community, sanctioned or not.

Recently the President of China visited the White House, where President Bush said, "China can grow even more successful by allowing the Chinese people the freedom to assemble, to speak freely, and to worship." President Bush understands that religious freedom is intimately connected to other personal liberties: freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right to a fair trial. Chapters two and three of the Bush administration’s 2006 National Security Strategy outline the president's commitment to encouraging freedom of religious expression throughout the world.

While I share President Bush’s commitment to international religious freedom, I believe our government needs to rethink its understanding of religious freedom in relation to our foreign policy strategies. And by supporting international religious freedom through every avenue available to us, we may begin to stem the tide of religious persecution that washes over far too much of our world.

As former State Department Deputy Undersecretary for International Religious Freedom Thomas Farr points out in a recent issue of First Things, the United States must no longer allow religion to be consigned to the realm of the irrelevant by our diplomatic corps; the "secular myopia" that prevails within the diplomatic community must be abandoned. If we are to understand nations and peoples defined by religious identification, we must stop behaving as if religion is the pastime of the unenlightened.

Diplomatically, we must galvanize the International Religious Freedom Act; see religious freedom as a non-negotiable cornerstone to any fledgling democratic state; insist that our allies protect the religious rights of all citizens, regardless of whether their beliefs comport with the state’s or not (e.g., Copts in Egypt); ask that U.S. officials, when meeting with leaders of "Countries of Particular Concern," name and inquire about the status of prisoners of conscience; and do more than merely issue reports on the incidences of religious freedom abuses worldwide.

It further means keeping religious freedom concerns on the forefront of any legislative agenda and to the extent we are able, supporting indigenous religious freedom movements worldwide. To this end, I founded and lead the bicameral Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom, which updates members of congress, their staff, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on incidences of religious persecution, and works to keep the promotion of liberty and freedom in the minds of my congressional colleagues.

Concerning Mr. Wu, I wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on April 27th and urged her to do all she can to work toward his release. I have also sent a letter of inquiry to the Chinese Ambassador seeking answers as to why Mr. Wu is being held, and what the Chinese government intends to do with him.

Ronald Reagan once said, "Given the freedom to choose, people choose freedom.”  We know this to be true from the recent elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while we recognize that the first fruits of electoral freedom might sometimes be distasteful or even unacceptable, as in the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, we recognize that our opportunity to spread the seeds of freedom is the calling of our time.