After a half-year's relative inactivity on international religious freedom and persecution, President Bush has begun to ramp up his response to those issues, according to White House sources.

So far the Bush team has not focused much on international religious freedom. There has been no Ambassador at Large for Religious Liberty Abroad since Robert Seiple stepped down a year ago. Further, the White House has not appointed its three members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Focus on Sudan

After urgings from Franklin Graham, Chuck Colson, and others, the President in May invoked George Washington's declaration that "the government of the United States. … gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." Bush focused particular attention on Sudan, announcing that "our actions begin today" to stop "persecution and atrocities."

Bush's dilemma is how to balance his commitment to religious freedom in Sudan and elsewhere with his pro-business inclinations. "Sudan is the litmus test of [Bush's] resolve on how religion integrates into foreign policy," says Nina Shea of the USCIRF.

In fact, the administration opposes the House of Representatives version of the Sudan Peace Act, which would prohibit oil companies or their subsidiaries that do business in Sudan from raising money in U.S. capital markets.

In interviews with CT, White House staffers toned down their opposition to the act. "The administration fully supports the goals of the [Sudan Peace] Act and will help Congress to craft a final version," a National Security Council (NSC) staffer said.

White House officials seem willing at least to force companies to disclose their activities in the country.

Activists are heartened by the President's appointment of Elliott Abrams as the human-rights point man at the NSC. The President also appointed former World Vision vice president Andrew Natsios to prepare policies on humanitarian aid to Sudan.

Shortly before he was appointed, Abrams told CT that at least the Sudan Peace Act's financial transparency provisions ought to be accepted. Abrams has also proposed that more U.S. humanitarian aid in Sudan be funneled through nongovernmental organizations, such as World Vision and Samaritan's Purse.

Someday, Abrams said, "the Bush administration may have to consider the goal of changing the regime in Khartoum or dividing the country" between the northern radical Muslims and southern Christians and animists.

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Mixed Signals on China

The Bush administration has been cautious in dealing with China. But the President called Chinese President Jiang Zemin on behalf of Christian Gao Zhan, a sociologist from American University in Washington, D.C., who was arrested and convicted on trumped-up charges of espionage.

"I prayed three times a day at least," Gao recalled after she was freed. "God used President Bush to save my life and bring me back."

Staffers say that Bush will raise religious-freedom issues during a trip to China this month. Still, critics point out that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell raised no specific religious-persecution cases during his July visit. The administration's approach to religious persecution in China has been inconsistent.

"Bush doesn't have a China policy," former Clinton NSC Asia specialist Derek Mitchell told CT, adding that the administration has "different messages and different voices."

Congressman Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), a leader of the religious human-rights movement in Congress, argues that inconsistencies should be expected at this stage: "It traditionally takes an administration about nine months to review existing foreign policy." Pitts expects Bush to address the persecution of Chinese Christians.

The White House has been interviewing candidates, such as Senate staffer John Hanford and Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, for the religious-freedom positions. Chester Crocker, a friend of Powell's, declined an appointment as special envoy to Sudan because "he didn't want to be dictated to by the Religious Right," says a government human-rights official.

Religious human-rights activists will be watching. "China will be a test of what Bush has been saying," says Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute. "It will be made very clear to the President that regardless of what the State Department types tell him, there will be a political imperative to follow his own moral convictions. It will be bloody if he doesn't."

Related Elsewhere

Also appearing on our site today:
What Does 09.11.01 Mean for Religious Persecution Policy? | Persecution watchdogs fear religious freedom will suffer. (Oct. 10, 2001)
Religious Liberty: How Are We Doing? | The challenges of being an international cop for human rights—a report by the first U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom. (Oct. 10, 2001)

In September, President Bush nominated John V. Hanford as Ambassador at Large. Bush also appointed three new members to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission elected Michael K. Young, dean of the George Washington University Law School, as chairman.

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The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), signed October 27, 1998, set up the Commission on International Religious Freedom and created the at-large ambassadorship for religious freedom.

Related Christianity Today coverage includes:

Gordon-Conwell Grad Nominated to Complete Administration's Religious Liberty Team | Hanford pledges to bring a balanced approach and a "passion for religious freedom."
Freedom Panel Alleges Genocide | U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes suggestion on Sudan's worsening abuses. (May 4, 2001)
Religious Freedom Delegation Gets Cold Shoulder | Some Coptic Christians worry that foreign intervention on their behalf would spell trouble. (May 1, 2001)
Religious Freedom Act: One Year Later | Little progress seen so far, but advocates see hope for future. (Dec. 27, 1999)
'America Legislates for the World!' Muslims respond to the U.S. State Department report on religious freedom" (Nov. 19, 1999)
Religious Freedom Report Released (Oct. 25, 1999)
Religious Persecution Bill Encounters Stiff Resistance (Oct. 5, 1998)
Congress Approves Modified Religious Persecution Bill (Nov. 16, 1998)

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