In an unprecedented hearing before the Near East and South Asia Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on May 1, 1997, five witnesses spoke on the subject of "Religious Persecution in the Middle East." In addition to Rep. Frank Wolf (Republican of Virginia) and three specialists-Bat Ye'or, Nina Shea, and Walid Phares-the U.S. government position was delivered by Steven J. Coffey, principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Coffey sets out the problem comprehensively and makes sweeping claims about U.S. policy; his remarks serve as an important benchmark by which to judge the Administration's future actions.
The promotion of religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere is a growing priority in our foreign policy. Religious liberty is, after all, a core American value. . . . where political freedoms are constrained or repressed, the same is often true for religious freedom. Religious freedom can only truly flourish in free societies.
One of our operating principles, therefore, is that as we work to expand the family of democracies around the world, to build free societies, to encourage tolerance, and to defend all fundamental human rights, we are also working to promote religious freedom.1 Our global policy seeks to build a framework of peace, freedom and respect for law in which all human rights can thrive, including religious liberty. . . .
RELIGION AND THE STATE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Very serious issues of religious restrictions, discrimination, persecution, and conflict exist in the Middle East. The region is diverse, however, and as I have pointed out, we should be careful not to make sweeping generalizations. In most of the Middle East there is little or no separation of religion and state as we practice it in the United States. Although this is manifested differently in each nation, the close association of religion and the state-and the lack of tolerance and pluralism-poses a special challenge to protect adherents of religions other than the state religion. . . .
With these variations in mind, it is worth highlighting the following issues:
Most Middle Eastern states impose significant legal obstacles to religious freedom, contrary to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. . . .
One of the most serious issues concerning religious freedom in most Middle Eastern countries is a strict prohibition on proselytizing. . . .
In some states, specific religious groups are persecuted or their practices restricted. . . .
Some Middle Eastern states legislate in ways that discriminate against religious groups. . . .
Violence which chooses religion as its standard bearer is all too common in the region. . . .
Given the absence of separation of religion and state, it bears highlighting that Middle Eastern governments are often active in regulating and restricting the practice of Islam, as well as of other religions. This is an important element of the religious context in the region that is sometimes overlooked. For example, it is common in many Middle Eastern states for governments to be involved in appointing Islamic clergy, funding mosques and religious workers' salaries, providing guidance for sermons, and monitoring Islamic religious services for unacceptable content. Such restrictions on Islam sometimes exist even in states that accept the free and open practice of other faiths. I raise the issue of restrictions on the practice of Islam in the Middle East to underscore that it is not just religious minorities in the region which face constraints on religious liberty. In some instances the restrictions placed on minorities are mirrored by similar restrictions or regulations of the Islamic majority. Some of these restrictions, moreover, overlap with constraints on other freedoms-such as freedom of speech or freedom of assembly-reinforcing the key point that religious freedom is only likely to thrive in free societies, and where political freedoms are restricted or repressed, the same is often true for religious freedoms.
WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT RELIGIOUS REPRESSION?
In my remarks so far, I have tried to lay out for you the general basis of our policy on religious freedom, the context and priorities of our Middle East policy, and the nature of the problem of religious intolerance in the Middle East. The remaining question I wish to deal with today is really the critical one: what are we doing about it? In fact, we are trying to deal with the question of religious freedom on several fronts.
First, we're speaking out for religious freedom. President Clinton has issued several proclamations on religious freedom and Secretary of State Albright, soon after taking office, stated that freedom of religion is a priority human rights concern for her and made it clear that it should be treated as an important issue in our human rights policy. . . .
Second, we're making it clear when there's a problem in a country. Our annual human rights reports to Congress each contain a section on freedom of religion; these spell out in detail the situation in every country in the world, highlighting the problems we see. This is a public document that gets wide distribution. And we bring the reports and our concerns directly to the attention of the governments concerned. This year we will also be presenting a report to Congress on persecution of Christians around the world, which will include portions on Middle Eastern countries. And beyond these reports, the State Department comments regularly and publicly on instances of religious intolerance and persecution that come to our attention in all countries, including in the Middle East.
Third, we have begun to take a much more activist approach in the field to questions of religious freedom. In December, the Department of State instructed all U.S. embassies around the world, including in the Middle East, to be alert to the high priority we attach to religious freedom. We asked our posts to report more actively on these issues, to identify religions, denominations, or sects being discriminated against or persecuted, and to provide suggestions about how the U.S. might most effectively address questions of religious freedom and religious persecution in their countries. This initiative has already begun to show results, with more information coming our way, and some useful suggestions on how to approach certain governments on this issue.
Fourth, in February we convened the first session of the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom abroad. This new committee brings together twenty of America's most prominent religious leaders, activists, and thinkers to help us forge new policy directions on religious freedom. The creation of the Advisory Committee reflects our recognition that more can and should be done to promote religious freedom abroad. Already the Committee's members are hard at work, and have formed sub-groups on religious persecution and on conflict resolution. By this summer we hope to have the Committee's first recommendations for action.
Fifth, we have taken an increasingly active approach in raising with Middle Eastern and other governments specific cases of individuals and groups who are suffering discrimination or persecution on religious grounds. Generally, we have done this quietly and through diplomatic channels. We have also encouraged governments to state publicly their opposition to acts of violence and discrimination aimed at individuals or groups because of their religion or belief. In a number of cases we have seen positive results.
Sixth, we have been active in multilateral fora in raising questions of religious freedom. In the UN Human Rights Commission earlier this month, for example, we cosponsored a resolution on religious intolerance and delivered a strong statement on religious freedom. The United States was instrumental in the creation of a Human Rights Commission Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, and we have been strongly supportive of the Special Rapporteur's activities. We have also drawn attention to specific cases of gross abuse, including Iran's treatment of its Baha'i community and Iraqi persecution of several religious groups.
Seventh, we have sponsored and funded programs to promote religious liberty and tolerance. . . . For example, U.S.I.S. posts in Arab countries have sent clerics, journalists, politicians and academics to the United States to participate in an annual International Visitor program on "Religion in America," in which they meet with American Christian, Muslim, Jewish and ecumenical groups to discuss ways of promoting religious tolerance. Participants have returned impressed with the extent of religious freedom in the U.S. and the possibilities for cooperative relationships among people of different faiths. Through the National Endowment for Democracy we are funding several programs to support tolerance and secularism; for example, a project to enable an independent literary journal to organize debates on religion and democracy among theologians, historians, and lawyers, and another project to translate into Arabic and publish important works on democracy, tolerance and pluralism. . . .
Eighth, we have reached out to religious groups and leaders throughout the Middle East. Our Embassies maintain close contacts with a broad spectrum of Middle Eastern religious leaders, especially those representing groups suffering discrimination, to reassure them of American interest and see how we can be helpful.
Finally, our overall policy toward the Middle East-while not determined by questions of religious freedom-in fact is aimed at creating the kind of conditions under which religious freedom has a chance to emerge, and to prosper. I've spoken, for example, about how the Arab-Israeli conflict has given rise to extremist groups such as Hamas, and has exacerbated religious tensions and intolerance in the region. I have pointed out that our chief policy emphasis is on the Middle East peace process. By establishing peace in the region and building bridges between communities previously at war, we are also establishing a framework for greater tolerance. Likewise, our effort to build open societies and encourage the growth of democratic institutions in the Middle East will contribute over time to a climate for greater religious freedom. Our efforts to fight terrorism also help strike at the roots of intolerance and religious persecution. And, our work to isolate rogue regimes will help weaken many of the leaders most responsible for severe repression in the region. In these ways, our general approach to Middle East policy is helping to build a framework in which religious tolerance will be more likely to emerge, and to grow.
1 To which Jacob Heilbrunn replies in "Christian Rights," The New Republic, July 7, 1997: "Coffey has it exactly backwards: political freedom depends on religious freedom, rather than the reverse. Religious freedom is not incidental to a free society, as Coffey's remarks would seem to suggest, but an essential foundation for one." Heilbrunn places Coffey's testimony in the context of an argument that the Clinton administration has shown "a marked lack of concern over the persecution of Christians."
A MIDDLE EASTERN RESPONSE
The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram International published on June 12, 1997, a disdainful account by Huda Tawfiq of a follow-up meeting to the one at which Steven Coffey testified. It bears the title, "A 'Comical' Campaign against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria: Misleading American Attempts against Arab Countries to Allege Persecution of Christians." Excerpts follow:
Washington-The Middle East Committee of the American Senate held a special hearing to discuss allegations of persecution of Christians in Islamic countries. This was done in the framework of a campaign planned by pressure groups to incite the American public, the media and the American government against governments and countries in the [Middle East] region, using allegations of Christian persecution. . . .
Senator Joe Lieberman announced a threefold plan: to spread this campaign inside America, to fight this alleged persecution through collecting data and publishing it in the American newspapers, and to issue legislation to force the American administration to use the weapons of sanctions, etc. to stop the alleged persecution!!
It was observed that the hearing resembled a comedy. The confused and funny data caused laughter, as did the shallowness of the witnesses who were brought forth.
Trans. by Mounir Bishay, Christian Copts of California