(CNSNews.com) - As people of faith across the United States prepared to celebrate this season's religious holidays, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called on Congress to impose sanctions against five countries around the world because of their "particularly severe violations" of religious freedoms.
China, Sudan, Iran, Iraq and Burma were cited by the State Department recently for their "systematic, ongoing and egregious behavior." Albright's condemnation was not expected to have much practical effect, however, since the five offenders already are subject to some sanctions, in accordance with US law.
But to groups monitoring violations of religious freedom around the world, any State Department pronouncement on the subject of religious freedom is welcome, and any action is the answer to a prayer.
"It's incumbent on a government as powerful as the United States to make known the views of the advanced democracies that religious freedom and freedom of association are expected among members of the WTO and the civil rights world," said Nina Shea, director of the center for religious freedom at Freedom House, in an interview with CNSNews.com.
In China, Communist intolerance of unregistered religious activity has led to severe persecution of people on the basis of their religious practice. Civil rights leaders were shocked earlier this week when Chinese courts handed down harsh prison terms to leaders of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that one Chinese commentator described as "so non-threatening politically that the followers sound as though they're speaking for the government."
The principles espoused by the Falun Gong - loyalty, truthfulness in relations, and the leading of moral lives - compliment those officially advocated by the Communist Party for the past 50 years, said Ning Ye, a radio commentator and chairman of the Washington-based Free China Foundation, in an interview with CNSNews.com
"The non-confrontational policies of the Falun Gong actually indirectly supports the dictatorship," Ning Ye said, "and yet their followers are thrown in jail and sent to 're-education camps' without any proper judicial proceedings."
"That kind of religious persecution is extraordinary. It has no reason and no justification and no rationale. We have many other reports based on very reliable sources that many Falun Gong members were beaten and tortured and killed," Ning Ye said.
Under the sanctions, China - which already enjoys special trading partner status with the US - will be subject to restrictions on American-made crime control and detection instruments and equipment.
In Sudan, the Islamic regime is using a 16-year civil war to carry out persecutions against religious minorities, particularly in the southern part of the country. Christians and practitioners of traditional indigenous religions are subject to killing, prolonged arbitrary detention, enslavement and forced conversion to Islam.
"We're seeing a religious genocide being carried out in Sudan against Christian and other groups in the south," Shea said. "Now there's a new oil pipeline controlled by Khartoum that is insulating it from world pressure while at the same time giving it the revenues it needs to carry out its forcible Islamization program.
"I see that as a threat to stability in the whole region, and the State Department utterly lacks a policy to deal with this. They are afraid of being accused of 'Muslim-bashing,' when, in fact, it's not Islam that should be attacked but the radical militant strains within Islam, which are also hurting our greatest allies in the Muslim world, like the moderate governments of Jordan and Egypt."
In Iraq, the government of Saddam Hussein has conducted a brutal campaign of murder and violence against adherents of the Shi'a Muslim population, the State Department reported.
Civil rights groups also cite efforts toward globalization and silence on the part of Western consumers as additional factors that enable regimes to get away with persecuting people for practicing their religion.
"What I see at the end of the twentieth century is the move toward globalization and more of a focus on international law and international politics," said Mark Jacobs, director of International Christian Concern, and a monitor of the house churches in China, in an interview with CNSNews.com.
"Governments and political systems are looking at any religion or any group of people that seem to be a threat to global unity more and more as targets for repression. Any religion that seems to conflict with peace and security in the world will be targeted by globalists for elimination or to minimize their effect on society," he said.
Jacobs predicts it will be increasingly difficult for people of faith who believe they have a responsibility to extend their religion beyond their homes or their synagogues or churches to preach their faith.