Podium: Religious liberty for all is our goal

Remarks made by the American President to religious leaders in Washington before his visit to China
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we welcome the recent release from prison of two key Chinese religious leaders, Gao Feng and Bishop Zeng Jingmu, as well as China's announcement that it intends to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with its guarantees of freedom of thought and religion. But Chinese Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists remain imprisoned for their religious activities, including in Tibet, and other believers face harassment.

Therefore, when in China, I will speak as clearly as I can about human rights and religious freedom. Our message is clear: we in the United States believe that all governments everywhere should ensure fundamental rights, including the right of people to worship when and where they choose. We believe that China should resume talks with the Dalai Lama. We believe that prisoners of conscience should be released.

I am convinced that dealing directly with the Chinese on these issues is the best way to make a difference, and making a difference is in the end what matters. I am also convinced, as I told President Jiang here both privately and in our press conference, that China will be more stable, will grow stronger, will acquire more influence in the world in direct proportion to the extent to which it recognises liberties of all kinds and especially religious liberty.

Of course, we all know that the freedom to follow one's personal beliefs, to worship as one chooses, is at the core of what it means to be an American. It is in the very first amendment to the Constitution. It is at the forefront of the Bill of Rights. Men and women fleeing religious persecutions helped to found our country. They still arrive every year, of every conceivable faith, from every point in the world, to seek this freedom.

Our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other houses of worship are centres of vibrant community life and vital community service. We have always been vigilant in protecting our own religious freedoms, for we know that an attack on any group imperils all. Dr Martin Luther King once said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". It clearly applies to the principle of religious liberty.

And we know now that if we want the kind of world for our children that we are labouring so hard to build for the 21st century, our struggle for liberty cannot end at our borders. There are many countries, far too many, where religious believers still suffer in darkness, where governments ban religious practices or force an officially sanctioned creed on non- believers; people are harassed, imprisoned, tortured, sometimes even executed for daring to live by their beliefs.

On the other hand, we know that when religious diversity is respected, it fosters a sense of community and solidarity. Religious hatred fuels violence, as we have seen too often. So we promote both religious freedom and religious tolerance. They are two sides of the same coin, each necessary for the other's success.

Secretary Albright and I have made promotion of religious freedom around the world a top priority. I have had extensive discussions on the subject with President Yeltsin and with other world leaders. State Department officials here and overseas now give greater attention to religious persecution and other religious liberty issues than ever before.

Let me just say one word about how we should continue to pursue this cause. I have been deeply touched that as the presence of these members of Congress shows, there is a universal determination I think in our country among all our decision-makers to advance the cause of religious liberty. There is some difference of opinion about how we can best proceed.

My belief is that we have to be both principled and resourceful. We need to be dedicated to achieving results. And therefore I hope that Congress will not only express its strong support and give us the tools to do the job, but leave us as much flexibility as possible to advance the cause of religious freedom consistent with what can be done and how it can best be done, nation by nation. America is not strengthened in fighting for religious liberty or in fighting against religious persecution by laws that are so rigid a President's hands are tied.

As we intensify our efforts to promote religious liberty, I know we can count on the support of people of faith all over this country.

Abraham Lincoln, whose determination to defend our liberty cost him his life, once said, "The fight must go on. The cause of liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even 100, defeats." That is what we must believe, that is the reality we must create.