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bullet " It's an important and vital first step to combat a growing problem -- a problem which is an affront to people of conscience everywhere and a threat to human dignity. We must not be silent while people are being killed, tortured and maimed on account of their faith." Congressman Frank R. Wolf (R-VA)

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Rep. Frank Wolf, (R-VA) and Sen. Arlen Specter, (R-PA) introduced "The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act" as a House bill. Its main purpose is to impose economic sanctions on nations that condone or commit religious persecution. The House bill is H.R. 2431; the Senate bill is S. 772. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) heads up the "Senate Religious Persecution Task Force". The Task Force plans to use the Wolf-Specter bill as its basis for action. (1)

In its original form, the House bill would have:

bullet Established a new office in the White House, which is independent of the State Department. It would be called the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring
bullet Provided for compulsory and automatic sanctions against foreign governments that support religious persecution or fail to prevent it.
bullet Improved proceedings for refugees claiming that they have been religiously persecuted over refugees who have other grounds for seeking asylum.
bullet Imposed immediate sanctions on Sudan including "a ban on the export of computers and computer equipment, a ban on financial transactions with the government of Sudan, a ban on flights to and from Sudan, a ban on the promotion of U.S. tourism in Sudan, a ban on U.S. depository institutions holding deposits for the government of Sudan, a ban on U.S. government procurement from Sudan." (7) These provisions are somewhat redundant, because stronger sanctions that these were already established by President Clinton in 1997-NOV.

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Support for the House Bill:

The main source of support for the bill comes from Conservative Christian organizations:

bullet Christian Coalition
bullet Evangelicals for Social Action
bullet Family Research Council
bullet National Association of Evangelicals
bullet Prison Fellowship
bullet Salvation Army
bullet Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
bullet U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference

Additional support has been given by the International Campaign for Tibet, and a number of Jewish groups:

bullet Anti-Defamation League
bullet National Jewish Coalition
bullet Union of American Hebrew Congregations
bullet Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregation

There appears to be no formal support from mainline and liberal Christian faith groups, or from other religions.

Some comments in favor of the bill:

"This is not exclusively a Muslim problem, nor a Christian problem, nor a Jewish problem. No faith is immune; and no one group is to blame. Decent people around the world over are horrified by religious persecution, and the United States cannot stand idly by and watch it grow."

"The Nazis and Hitler's Germany gave the destruction of European Jewry a high priority, and it is unlikely that they would have been dissuaded by moralistic exhortations. It is, therefore, precisely the weak and the vulnerable who call for justice and who seek others to intercede for them."

"The passage of the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act could send a message to Beijing that its hollow claims of religious freedom discredit the Communist Party and its leadership."

"If the United States wants to continue encouraging the enlargement of the community of free and democratic nations, then we need to set aside a single-minded pursuit of profits, reset our moral compass, and lead the way for the rest of the world. No other nation can do it."

bullet Congressman Benjamin A Gilman (R-NY):
bullet Jerry Goodman, Executive Director, National Committee for Labor Israel
bullet Lodi G. Gyari, President, International Campaign for Tibet
bullet Don Hodel, President of the Christian Coalition

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Opposition to the House Bill:

The State Department is opposed to the bill in its present form. They believe that:

bullet The sanctions mandated by the bill would bring more religions persecution, not less. John Shattuck, assistant secretary of their Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor indicated that this would be particularly true in places like Sudan, Egypt, China, Tibet, and the rest of the Middle East. (2)
bullet In some countries (e.g. Egypt) persecution is not necessarily originated by the government, but by religious groups within the country. Government sanctions would only weaken their ability to counter the oppression.
bullet Christians in China have indicated that a strong response from the US would jeopardize those few freedoms that they have obtained. They have asked that the bill not be promoted at this time.
bullet The bill would impose sanctions on several Middle Eastern countries and harm the peace process.
bullet The bill would create a "hierarchy of human rights" by giving religious persecution greater emphasis than discrimination based on gender, race, etc.
bullet The bill would establish a "bureaucratic struggle" between the State Department and the proposed new Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring.

Shattuck suggested a number of amendments to the bill:

bullet have the bill authorize a "range of options" in which sanctions would be the last resort
bullet increasing funding to existing agencies instead of creating a new White House office.

Supporters of the Wolf-Specter bill said such changes would seriously weaken the bill. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said that sanctions are needed to show the United States is serious about human-rights violations: "Lack of State Department action creates a climate susceptible to persecution." [It is apparent that Land was not aware of the exact nature of the recommended changes; the legislation would still retain the sanction option.]

Columnist Anthony Lewis (4) criticized the bill, suggesting that it "is an attempt to impose a simple, mechanical solution on a complicated problem [. It is] a recipe for unintended consequences." He makes a number of points:

bullet It would make religious persecution the paramount concern". This would signal other governments that the US cares less about "genocide, political repression and racial persecution," than about religious repression.
bullet He asks whether economic reprisals on Saudi Arabia and China would ease repression there. "The questions are hard, and they would be made harder by a one-dimensional focus on religion."
bullet The Christian Coalition (5) and other religious right organizations are the strongest backers of the bill as part of their objective "to advance their cause of giving religion a prime role in the American political structure."

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Progress of the House Bill

Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (R, GA) commented: "I think we're going to work in both the House and Senate to convince the Clinton administration to withdraw its opposition to an office in the White House, to recognize the need for America to take a leading role, not a passive role, not a tentative role, but a leading role in being a witness around the world on behalf of religious liberty."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, (R, MS) predicted that the Senate would "address this question legislatively, and we're going to do it now. We're going to do it this year,"

The House bill was modified slightly and approved by the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee of the House's International Relations Committee on 1997-SEP-18. (6) The bill would retain its main features: create a new office in the White House, provide for sanctions, and improve proceedings for refugees fleeing religious persecution. However, some extremely important changes were made to the bill. It would:

bullet allow the President to waive sanctions, if he provides a written explanation to Congress.
bullet more clearly state that the law would all victims of religious persecution, not just to Christians.
bullet not give precedence to victims of religious persecution over those who are fleeing other forms of oppression.
bullet not block loans and humanitarian aid that assist people directly.

Although some Republicans and many Democrats on the International Relations Committee expressed concerns with the bill, it was passed on 1998-MAR-31 by a substantial margin (31 to 5). It was reviewed by the Ways and Means Committee. They added an amendment that would shield imports to the US from Sudan from a ban. Sudan exports Gum Arabic, an important material for some industrial processes. Sudan is also one of the least religiously tolerant countries in the world; Muslims in the north have been involved in an armed struggle for 4 decades against the Animists and Christians in the south. This has involved instances of crucifixions, and enslavement.

As of 1998-MAY-13, house bill H.R. 2431 had 125 co-sponsors. The House bill was debated and approved on 1998-MAY-14, by a vote of 375 to 41. The bill has been extensively changed:

bullet the monitoring office would be located in the State Department, not the White House
bullet the director of the office would be required to make an annual report on religious persecution worldwide
bullet that director would be able to impose automatic sanctions (e.g. terminating U.S. foreign assistance, denial of visas and prohibitions on certain exports to offending countries) (8)

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Competing Senate Bill:

Conservative Christians were unsuccessful in pushing for an Istook-like bill. It met firm resistance in the Senate.  Senators Don Nickles (R OK) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced the International Religious Freedom Act into the Senate. It is a more moderate bill that differs from the Istook House bill in a number of ways. It would:

bullet define religious freedom violations more broadly
bullet require "consultation with religious communities, here and abroad, prior to undertaking action to ensure that any U.S. response will help, not harm, the religious minority on the ground.9
bullet require the President to choose from a list of 15 sanctions to apply to non-conforming countries. These range "from private diplomatic protest to certain economic sanctions." He could waive sanctions if U.S. national interests would otherwise be harmed.
bullet create the post of ambassador-at-large in the State Department
bullet create a new post on the National Security Council staff - an adviser on religious liberty
bullet create a 7 person commission appointed by Congress and the President. 8
bullet create a training program for "U.S. Foreign Service officers and immigration officials to increase awareness of religious persecution."  9

On 1998-OCT-9, and by a 98-0 vote, the U.S. Senate approved the bill. The Episcopal church led a number of heterogeneous religious groups, including the Christian Coalition, Lutherans, Reform and Orthodox Jewish groups, Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, etc.

The bill was approved by the House and signed into law by President Clinton on 1998-OCT. 10,11 He nominated Robert Seiple, to be the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a position that the bill created.

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  1. Jim Inhofe, "Senate Religious Persecution Task Force: Membership, Purpose, Legislative Agenda with Examples of Religious Persecution". 1997-MAY. Text is at:
  2. Greg Warner, "Religious persecution bill would do more harm than good, U.S. official says,", Associated Baptist Press, 1997-OCT-9. See:
  3. Rabbi David Saperstein, "Freedom From Religious Persecution Act Of 1997", speech delivered at the U.S. Capitol on 1997-MAY-20. See:
  4. Anthony Lewis, "The Wrong Signal," New York Times, 1997-SEP-12. See:
  5. Ceci Connolly, "Religious Persecution Tops Coalition Agenda:, Washington Post, 1997-AUG-26. See:
  6. A Tom Strode, "Subcommittee OKs Persecution Bill; Uncertainty Exists in Full Committee". At:
  7. Representative Frank R. Wolf's has a web site dealing with the bill at: A detailed summary of the bill is at:
  8. "News & Comment: Altered Persecution Bill Approved by U.S. House," The Report from the Capital, Baptist Joint Committee, Vol. 53, #10, 1998-MAY-19.
  9. Michael Barwell, "U.S. Senate passes religious persecution bill," Episcopal News Service, 1998-OCT-9
  10. The full text of the act is online at:
  11. A summary of the bill is at:

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Copyright 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUN-
Latest update: 2000-JUN-
Author: B.A. Robinson

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