Among the recommendations, the Senate and House of Representatives should approve measures that would strengthen the federal government's ground-breaking international religious freedom law and establish a special envoy for religious minorities in a repressive region of the world, said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
All of the legislative actions he proposed "are achievable," Duke said at the meeting at The Washington Times. "They are within reach. And I believe if we were all to work together on them we would see these accomplished."
Duke made his suggestions after representatives of several religious groups briefed the participants on the conditions for their adherents. His recommendations, which also were included in a five-page paper prepared for the conference, were:
-- Adopt the International Religious Freedom Act Amendments, H.R. 1856, which would extend the existence of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, authorize the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to work with non-governmental organizations "in countries where governments are persecuting people of minority faith" and strengthen the sanctions aspect when the State Department designates its "countries of particular concern."
-- Pass the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, H.R. 440 and S. 1245, which would institute a special envoy for the promotion of religious freedom in such countries as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan.
-- Promote the spread of Internet firewall-breaching technology to enable people in such countries as China, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Vietnam to have access to online information.
-- Approve a resolution condemning, and hold hearings on, China's repression of faith groups.
The International Religious Freedom Act, which became law in 1998, created USCIRF, but the bipartisan commission is scheduled to expire in September. USCIRF advises the White House, State Department and Congress on the condition of religious freedom overseas. The nine-member panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders includes Richard Land, the ERLC's president.
"Countries of particular concern" are those regimes designated by the State Department as the world's worst violators of religious liberty.
The firewall-breaching initiative would spread current technology that enables people to "circumvent those firewalls" established by repressive regimes in a way that protects their identities, Duke said.
The technology "will actually enable people in closed societies to be able to have free access to uncensored information and the ability to communicate freely with one another," Duke told participants. "Right now, as you know, hundreds of millions of people in the world are restricted from having full access to the Internet..., including people of faith simply wanting to communicate with each other...."
The effort needs greater resources that could come by transferring the prime responsibility for the effort from the State Department to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Duke said. The BBG is responsible for civilian broadcasting overseas, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia.
The State Department now has the responsibility, Duke said, "and quite frankly, folks, they're falling down on the job." Congress moved $10 million from the State Department to the BBG in this year's spending but should transfer at least $5 to $10 million more, he said.
In introducing his legislative proposals, Duke referred to religious freedom as a right granted by God, not mankind or government.
Human beings should follow the example of Jesus, he said. Duke told participants he believes the Bible "teaches clearly that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. And yet, when I read the New Testament and I read the way Jesus acted and the way He behaved toward people, I don't see Him engaging in coercive activities to change people's beliefs. In fact, it's astonishing to me that here you have God incarnate actually humbling Himself and appealing to human beings to believe in Him."
Before Duke and other panelists spoke on policy initiatives to alleviate persecution, representatives of such religious adherents as Chinese Christians, Egyptian Coptic Christians, Muslims, Baha'is, Sikhs, Hindus and Scientologists explained briefly the kind of persecution their groups are experiencing.
"The problem is no faith community is safe," said Tina Ramirez, director of government relations for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, urged the various groups to work together. Religious freedom "is an issue we all will rise or fall on," said Moeller, whose organization serves the persecuted church. "Disunity on this issue will result" in increased losses of religious liberty, he said.
Suzan Johnson Cook, the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, spoke briefly, requesting prayer for her office's work. "We have a common mission with stopping religious persecution but also promoting religious freedom around the globe," she said.
The forum was called the "Stop Religious Persecution Now! An Interactive Discussion for People of All Faiths."
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Duke's paper may be accessed online at http://erlc.com/article/american-public-policy-and-religious-liberty-suggested-actions-in-the-112th/.
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