Although the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) has brought little relief for the persecuted church, Christian advocates around the world still hail the act as a leap in the right direction."It is an excellent thing for religious liberty," says Philippe Serradji, president of the Theological Institute of Nîmes, France. The seminary has been under pressure since the French government named evangelical churches to a list of "dangerous cults," Serradji says. Evangelicals remain on France's cult list, but Serradji believes the IRFA will benefit them. "If the law is on my side, I can say [to the government], 'if you do this [against evangelicals], there are repercussions.'"The act, which President Clinton signed on October 27, 1998, reformed U.S. foreign policy to promote religious freedom through incentives and sanctions. The Commission on International Religious Freedom, created by the act, released its first annual report last fall. But so far, some feel the IRFA has done little to help persecuted Christians. Responses to IRFA vary by country:
Lawyer Marvin Kramer serves on the Messianic Action Committee, which fights efforts to restrict freedom of religion. Kramer says the Knesset, Israel's legislative body, is considering more anti-Christian legislation. Under the proposed law, Christians who invite non-Christians to a church service or prayer meeting would risk five years in prison. "It would not appear that the International Religious Freedom Act has had any impact on life here," he says.
The IRFA's 1999 report includes seemingly minor statements that may negatively affect at least one country that actively persecutes Christians. "It's not a complete report," says Egyptian Nagi Kheir, spokesman for the American Coptic Association and director of Middle East affairs for Advocates International, a global network of religious freedom proponents. Kheir says that the report distorts an attack on the Egyptian village of El-Kosheh, in which government forces rounded up and tortured 1,200 Christians for the murders of two Copts actually killed by Muslims. While the report states that the 1,200 people tortured for the murders were all Christians, it concludes that the incident was not religious persecution. "Anybody with any intelligence would see these statements as contradictory," Kheir says. Despite these problems, Kheir praises the report: "It's an excellent first step."
Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, says the report provides evangelicals with independent proof that violence against Christians in India is not exaggerated, as some other faiths in that country long have claimed."The very mention of atrocities—and that the U.S. is interested to see that they are stopped—in itself is encouraging to the minority Christian community in India," Howell says.Sam Eriksson, president of Advocates International, believes that the IRFA has great potential to help suffering Christians, but that any evaluation would be premature."My concern is that what [the IRFA is] trying to do is so immense that it's going to be hard to deliver all the expectations," Eriksson says. "Getting the facts out is just the first step. How the U.S. government would be able to change the policies in a country—we'll have to wait and see what happens."
See our earlier coverage of the IRFA:Religious Persecution Bill Encounters Stiff Resistance (Oct. 5, 1998) Congress Approves Modified Religious Persecution Bill (Nov. 16, 1998) Religious Freedom Report Released (Oct. 25, 1999) 'America Legislates for the World!' Muslims respond to the U.S. State Department report on religious freedom (Nov. 19, 1999) See also the U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom and the text of the IRFA.
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