A report on violations of religious freedom around the world is scheduled to be presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights this month. It is the result of an assessment by Portuguese lawyer and human rights specialist Angelo Vidal d’Almeida Ribeiro. He was appointed by the UN commission early last year to examine incidents of discrimination and to recommend ways to address them.

In December, Ribeiro visited the United States to meet with a cross section of human rights advocates. The U.S. visit was sponsored by an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, consisting of Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, evangelical, and mainline Protestant leaders. Committee members arranged Ribeiro’s schedule in New York, Washington, and Chicago.

Entering The Debate

Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals’ Washington research director, told Ribeiro that evangelicalism encompasses a large number of Christians who are concerned about human rights. But they are not represented by a large church bureaucracy in Geneva, Switzerland, where Ribeiro is based. Cizik said Ribeiro encouraged evangelicals to write to him directly with their concerns about abuses of religious freedom overseas.

Cizik said gaining entry to UN debate on religious liberty will require evangelicals to “develop internal, behind-the-scenes contacts” with the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. “For the evangelical church to communicate the gospel in its fullest sense,” he said, “we need to attempt to build bridges that haven’t existed before.”

Wade Coggins, executive director of the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, said evangelical attitudes regarding threats to human rights abroad have changed. A case-by-case approach to incidents of discrimination is no longer favored, he said. “Now we feel the most effective way to deal with church situations overseas is to get local Christians to bring pressure to bear on their own governments instead of applying U.S. pressure.”

Coggins pointed out that this approach works best in situations of day-to-day problems, but said the local Christian community may be powerless to oppose cases of state persecution. In those instances, he said, the current evangelical strategy is to develop contacts with the U.S. State Department’s human rights office.

Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, a Jewish leader who met with Ribeiro, recommended the formation of regional councils of religious leaders around the world. In this way, Haberman said, “a common front” of concern could be presented to the United Nations through a new network. Regional councils could lend new status and visibility to religious leaders in repressive countries, Haberman said.

Before Ribeiro visited the United States, he had received information from human rights sources including Amnesty International and the World Council of Churches, which maintain offices in Geneva. His office also solicited reports of religious intolerance from 200 nongovernmental organizations recognized by the United Nations. At a Washington briefing, he discussed incidents of reported abuses from many parts of the world, including the plight of Greek Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe, Tibetan monks in China, and the Turkish Muslim minority in Bulgaria.

Among other recommendations, Ribeiro said, his report will encourage the appointment of independent ombudsmen in various countries to mediate between church members and their governments. In Portugal, Ribeiro holds such an ombudsman post, assisting citizens in correcting violations of human rights or bureaucratic errors.

Avoiding Specifics

By appointing Ribeiro to examine violations of religious freedom, the United Nations is trying to implement a 1981 resolution entitled “Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.” The resolution was passed after 21 years of heated debate in the UN Commission on Human Rights.

The United Nations’ uneasiness over the issue of human rights results from claims by its totalitarian member nations that they protect religious liberties. Bringing incidents of abuse to light, especially if the abuses are sanctioned or demanded by the state, could place Ribeiro in an uncomfortable spot.

Haberman, president of the Foundation of Jewish Studies, noted that Ribeiro appeared to be “well-informed and well-intentioned, but shaking in his boots.… If he comes up with anything [in his report] that has teeth in it, the Russians will see that he’s bounced [and not replaced].”

Ribeiro told U.S. religious leaders that he welcomes reliable information from private groups. But he warned that his first report will probably fall far short of indicting specific governments and will focus instead on general problems.

By Beth Spring.

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