In North Korea, Christians meet secretly or else they suffer imprisonment. In northern Nigeria, some Christians have been subjected to Islamic Shari'ah law, which punishes violators with amputation, floggings, and stoning. In countries all over the world, men and women of all manner of religions are victimized because of what they believe. What exactly should we do about it?

Among human-rights advocates, two strikingly divergent opinions have emerged. One side is represented by Robert Seiple, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. In October 2002 he wrote an essay for

Among other things, he contrasted the approaches of the U.S. State Department and that of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: "One is based on quiet diplomacy; the other, public finger pointing. One works with governments; the other castigates governments from afar. One lights candles, if you will, and the other feels obligated to curse the darkness."

As for himself, Seiple concludes, "I have never been comfortable with the 'punishing' approach. While it may appeal to our public machismo at home, it rarely moves the ball forward abroad. Sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions, have a checkered career at best, sometimes creating a negative blowback on those we are attempting to help."

After some key leaders took exception to Seiple's views, Christianity Today invited two longtime religious-rights advocates to make their cases.

This article, written by T. Jeremy Gunn, is the debate's second essay. Also read Michael Horowitz's piece.

In the mid-1990s, some activists inside the Washington beltway began a campaign against religious persecution abroad. While the motivations of many involved in this campaign are indeed sincere, and although the problems in the world are real and serious, the campaign unfortunately has relied too often on Washington-style attack politics.

Rather than looking for difficult solutions to challenging problems, their approach has often been to lash out reactively at enemies, both real and imagined, and to devise measures to increase pressure on them.

The style of this campaign has included not only criticizing persecutors abroad, but also attacking people at home who are devoting their lives to promoting religious freedom. Michael Horowitz, one of the principal leaders of this campaign, reveals just how extreme their rhetoric can become when he asserts that those in government who do not follow his advice are not simply mistaken, but that they "must bear the moral burden of, and responsibility for, the victimized believers who suffer and die on their watch" (see "Cry Freedom," p. 48).

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This polemical approach—which requires us either to agree with Horowitz's recommendations or accept blame for the persecutors' actions—is exactly the wrong way to approach the issue of religious persecution. While the tactic of blaming the world's evils on those who disagree with your recommendations might succeed in Washington-style confrontation politics, it surely will not be effective in promoting freedom of religion or ending persecution outside of the United States.

Lives indeed are at stake—just as Horowitz says—which is why we must be prudent and avoid needlessly antagonizing and threatening governments that hold innocent lives in their hands on the opposite side of the world. It is neither wise nor brave to give bold speeches to American audiences that provoke persecutors abroad.

Doing it right

Before offering some criticisms of the approach taken by this polemical campaign, let me first acknowledge several points of agreement (albeit with some necessary qualifications).

First, I agree that the United States should speak clearly about religious persecution. I also believe, however, that the United States will be most effective when it speaks clearly not only about religious persecution, but clearly, consistently, and accurately about all major human-rights abuses committed by friends and foes alike.

Second, I also agree that the United States gives valuable moral and psychological support to those who are suffering from abuse of their human rights when it makes clear and principled statements of support for freedom of religion and belief. As a former representative of the State Department in discussions with people abroad who were suffering for their beliefs, I frequently heard: "You have no idea how much it means to us to know that the world's most powerful government is concerned about our situation."

Thus, active State Department involvement throughout the world helps provide this needed moral support.

Third, the United States has not done as much as it could to promote freedom of religion and belief. Nevertheless, we should avoid any urge to make this a partisan issue and frankly acknowledge that freedom of religion and belief was previously neglected by both Republican and Democratic presidents and their administrations.

Fourth, I agree that it is valuable to raise the consciousness of Americans to suffering around the world, particularly suffering that is due to religion and belief. But in doing so, it is important to be accurate in our descriptions and analysis.

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Gratuitous confrontation

While it is good to identify our points of agreement, it is also necessary to identify the harmful tactics that have been misused in the name of opposing persecution.

Of the many examples that might be discussed, I will note only two: the needlessly confrontational rhetoric that is used at home, and the misguided reliance on denunciation and sanctions abroad.

  1. Needlessly confrontational rhetoric at home. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the rhetorical excess of this campaign than Horowitz's mischaracterization of Robert A. Seiple's op-ed for

    Seiple, who served for two years as the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, had previously been president of World Vision-U.S. for 11 years. Seiple brings a highly proactive approach to his work, whether in dealing with religious freedom or economic relief. Under his leadership, the State Department issued two lengthy and substantive Annual Reports on International Religious Freedom, which catalogued abuses of religious freedom around the world. Both faith-based groups and secular human-rights organizations think highly of these reports.

    While at the State Department, Ambassador Seiple traveled extensively and dealt with hundreds of foreign officials—including officials in China, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia—to promote religious freedom and to urge constructive solutions. As a result of his broad experience throughout the world, rather than lobbying the U.S. government inside Washington, Seiple believes that engaged diplomacy is generally far more effective than denunciation in promoting religious freedom.

    Of course, one might honestly disagree with Ambassador Seiple's recommendations. But Horowitz falsely accuses Seiple of practicing "silence and passivity." This accusation is completely belied by anyone who reads Seiple's words, who has read the Annual Reports, who has heard him speak, who knows of his courage as a Marine combat pilot in battle, or who has seen him in action. Those who have worked with Seiple know that his quiet diplomacy (which should never be misrepresented as "silence and passivity") has freed scores from prison, changed laws and administration of laws, and reduced human suffering. For Horowitz to accuse Ambassador Seiple of "moral responsibility" for allowing the persecution to persist is to let rhetorical confrontation substitute for reality.

    But Horowitz continues in his misguided trajectory by simplistically denouncing the entire State Department. To make his point, he contrasts the "apoplexy" certain State Department officials felt on hearing Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech to his own admiration of the speech (which he credits for helping to bring about the end of the Soviet Union). I know from my own experience, working inside the State Department, that such broad-brush denunciations defame the hard work of many committed people. I certainly felt the frustrations inside the State Department when dealing with people who were unhelpful, but I also saw many people—including many people of faith—who were deeply committed to religious freedom and who worked hard to promote it.

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  1. Exaggerating the effectiveness of denunciations and sanctions abroad. Horowitz believes the best way to respond to governments that abuse human rights and that engage in religious persecution is to denounce them forcefully and to impose sanctions to back up the tough words. The examples that he most frequently cites are President Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, and, most recently, President Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech.

    But how effective is tough talk backed up by pressure as a way of promoting human rights? At certain times and in certain circumstances, the Horowitz approach may be effective. A successful example that he does not mention was the internationally supported sanctions regime imposed on South Africa during apartheid.

    Overall, however, tough talk and tough sanctions have been generally ineffective in promoting either human rights or religious freedom. The country against which the United States has spoken most harshly, and on which it has imposed sanctions the longest, is Cuba. Can we say that 40 years of the tough-talk-and-sanctions approach to Cuba has brought about democracy, human rights, or freedom of religion? Only recently, one of the leading human rights activist in Cuba, in a trip to the United States, has said that American pressure has not worked and that change must come from inside Cuba.

    Recent examples of other countries against which the United States has talked tough and imposed sanctions similarly suggest that this approach is generally a failure: Iraq, Sudan, and Burma immediately come to mind. Horowitz's example of President Bush's recent denunciation of North Korea seems to have had exactly the opposite effect of what he wanted. In response to the harsh denunciation by President Bush, North Korea ejected U.N. nuclear monitors, announced that it would relaunch its nuclear program, and sent armed troops into the dmz. Provocation does not always lead to progress.

    Thus it seems that the Horowitz approach usually does not prompt the reaction he predicts. The denunciation approach is simply not notable for the high percentage of its successes—even if we count his Jackson-Vanik example among them. Ambassador Seiple has it exactly right: the methodology of these campaigners is not notable for its successful results; rather, it is notable mostly for its harsh rhetoric and its desire to punish.

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Change from within

Our goal should not be to punish persecutors, regardless of how satisfying it might feel to our baser instincts. Rather, our real goal should be to work as effectively as possible in ending persecution and promoting freedom of religion and belief.

I will briefly identify four important factors that I believe could better guide the United States in its efforts to promote freedom of religion and belief.

  1. Religious freedom, like all other human rights, cannot be imposed only from the outside. I cannot think of any case in which a country that now has effective guarantees for human rights and religious freedom came to that position as a result of outside denunciations and pressures (other than regimes changed by wars).

    In fact, in each country where rights are now reasonably protected, people living inside the country brought about such changes. At times they risked their own lives to do so.

    Even in the case of South Africa, where apartheid came to an end in part due to outside pressures, it was successful because there also was a corresponding internal change of heart (such as F. W. DeKlerk's releasing Nelson Mandela from prison), and an effort by both whites and blacks to accept the challenges of democracy and human rights.

    In every country in the world there are brave people who are working for human rights. U.S. efforts are more likely to be effective when directed at helping those within countries who want to make positive changes.

  2. Foreign governments (similarly to most human beings) do not usually respond positively to denunciations and pressures. Imagine, as a hypothetical case, that the government of Saudi Arabia accused the United States of discriminating against Muslims. To make its point, Saudi Arabia argued that several hundred Muslims are in prison on the pretext of immigration violations, and it threatened to raise the price of oil unless the United States released the prisoners promptly.

    What would be our reaction to such a denunciation and threat? We probably would not say, "Thank you for drawing this important issue to our attention. We will investigate this situation and we will change our policies to conform to your wishes." More likely we would say something like "How dare you make such an accusation against us! Your country blatantly violates the rights of Christians. For Saudi Arabia to make such an accusation is hypocritical, and we will not be blackmailed by your threats."

    Americans sometimes believe that foreigners and their governments will naturally trust American criticisms of their countries and believe that our motivations are good. Anyone who has traveled abroad and spoken to others will quickly learn that others do not see us as we see ourselves.

    The error of naïvely believing that our denunciations will be taken at face value can be seen when we realize how distrustful Americans themselves often are of their own government. For example, many deeply distrusted President Clinton and even accused him of launching missile attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan in order to distract attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

    Horowitz similarly has shown himself to be contemptuous of the U.S. State Department. When he, like many other Americans, is often so distrustful of his own government, how can he possibly expect that foreign officials will respond positively to our government's criticism of them?

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  1. Understand the problem fully and accurately. I often hear religious persecution described as a situation of governments targeting people because of their religious beliefs, particularly when they are Christians. While there are indeed cases in which this is true, it is much more common for governments to abuse a broad range of human rights, of which religious freedom is only one.

    If we look at the countries that most abuse religious freedom—such as China and Saudi Arabia—we see that these nations suppress all basic human rights. It would be a serious distortion to believe that Uzbekistan persecutes Christians solely because they are Christians when Uzbekistan has incarcerated thousands of Muslims and prohibits free expression for all of its citizens.

    When the United States narrowly speaks of "Christian persecution" rather than persecution of all dissidents, it gives the impression to foreigners that it does not really care about religious freedom or human dignity but only about its own dominant religion. From my own experience meeting with persecuted Christians abroad, I know that they believe it is most helpful when U.S. interventions are principled and appear to be even-handed to their governments.

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  1. Be principled, consistent, and self-critical. No one likes countries (or people) that constantly criticize others but are oblivious to their own faults. While I believe that the United States now has one of the world's best systems for protecting freedom of religion, we must remember two important things.

    First, our religious freedom did not begin in the 17th century and continue unabated to the present. It is something that has emerged for all faiths only very recently, and then only after a great deal of persecution was directed at Catholics, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, and others.

    Second, we should candidly acknowledge that American governments have often supported regimes that have brutally suppressed a wide range of human rights, including religious freedom. The United States was one of the strongest supporters of many of the world's worst regimes after World War II, including those of Augusto Pinochet, Efrain Rios Montt, Ferdinand Marcos, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and others.

    Just as we wish others to recognize what they have done, we also must be willing to acknowledge what we have done. We will be more convincing and effective when we speak the truth about others' failings when we are known for speaking the truth about our own.

What works

Several months ago, I attended a meeting of political officials in the Kazakhstan capital as a member of the Panel of Experts on Religion or Belief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an organization of 55 countries. I had helped prepare the panel's analysis of some proposed amendments to Kazakhstan's religion laws. Many local religious groups, including Protestant Christians, believed that the amendments would severely restrict their religious freedom. The panel's report said the proposed amendments would fail to comply with the Kazakh constitution and international law.

Only one government in the world sent a representative to that meeting: the United States of America. The diplomat eloquently stated American concerns about the law's effect on religious believers. Though not there on behalf of the U.S., I was proud that my country was sufficiently concerned about the dangers of these amendments.

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The proposed amendments ultimately did not become law. I cannot say whether the OSCE panel or the U.S. statement influenced anyone. But from my experience during the past 10 years, in dozens of similar meetings and conferences, I do know that the government most consistently and productively involved with promoting freedom of religion is that of the United States.

In my work outside of the United States, I have never heard a local human-rights activist, a local religious-freedom activist, or a local religious believer advocate harsh denunciations of their governments or the use of sanctions to promote religious freedom. While such rhetoric and recommendations seem to thrive in the Washington political world, they are alien in the world where people's lives are on the line.

Our policies will ultimately be measured by their effectiveness and not by the harshness of our rhetoric. The truth must be spoken, and spoken clearly. But the problems of intolerance and the suppression of human rights are so serious that we err when we use religious persecution as a wedge to divide Americans and to dismiss the hard work of committed people.

Denunciation and punishment sometimes have their place, but only after careful and rational thought and never simply as a reaction. Our goal must be to evaluate and implement what actually works, and to use all proper means at our disposal to serve those who suffer for what they believe and for who they are.

Related Elsewhere

This article is the second part of a debate from our March issue. The first article in the debate appeared on our site yesterday:

Cry Freedom | Forget 'quiet diplomacy'—it doesn't work.

The debate was inspired by two "Speaking Out" articles written for

The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness | The increasingly irrelevant U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seems intent on attacking even those countries making improvements. (Oct. 16, 2002)
USCIRF's Concern Is To Help All Religious Freedom Victims | The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom responds to Robert Seiple's claims that it is "only cursing the darkness." (Nov. 7, 2002)

For more articles, see Christianity Today's Persecution archive.

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