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US Congress Focuses on Religious Freedom


U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, hosted a conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday on protecting religious freedom around the world. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, and other senior U.S. officials said religious liberty should be an important part of American foreign policy.

President Bush's top adviser on international religious freedom, Ambassador John Hanford, opened the conference. He said Congress has been a driving force in U.S. efforts to put an end to religious persecution. He said protecting religious freedom is one issue where Republican and Democratic lawmakers heartily agree, and argued that it should be a foreign policy priority.

"Religious freedom deserves a central place in our foreign policy, because religious persecution leads to the suppression of other human rights," said John Hanford. "I would argue that respect for religious freedom is a very useful diagnostic tool, or litmus test, for a society's overall health."

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, agreed that the United States, and the United Nations, need to pay more attention to countries that are profoundly intolerant of religions. Singling out North Korea and Iran, Bolton said governments that violate their own citizens' basic rights are also likely to back international terrorism.

"It is a nearly 100 percent correlation, and I don't think it's accidental, that countries that suppress human rights domestically, and particularly countries that have demonstrated extraordinary religious intolerance, are also among the principal state sponsors of terrorism and have been for many years, and are states pursuing weapons of mass destruction," said John Bolton.

Bolton said North Korea's repression of religious liberty was so comprehensive that it made it unique, and he cited the Iranian government's repression of its Bahai religious minority.

A U.S. government commission released its annual report last month, recommending that 11 countries be placed on a list of "particular concern" for violating religious freedom. Those countries are China, North Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Eritrea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom, based in Washington, said one current threat to religious freedom is anti-conversion and blasphemy laws. He explained that anti-conversion laws restrict an individual's right to change his or her religion. Marshall cited a number of countries where converts have come under attack.

"If we look at converts, we find that in recent months, converts have been killed, beaten, threatened by vigilantes in at least Pakistan, the Palestinian areas, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, extremely widespread in Somalia, and now also in Kenya," noted Paul Marshall.

Marshall said a number of such anti-conversion laws have been passed or are now being pushed in several states in India, as well as elsewhere in South Asia, and that there are similar laws in Greece.

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