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Religious Freedom and Inter-American Relations PDF Print E-mail

Larry Pressler, Former US Senator

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

I am Larry Pressler, formerly a US Senator for 18 years. I served a total of 22 years in the US Congress, including four years in the US House of Representatives. I am now a businessman, lawyer, university lecturer and board member. During my time in Congress I was concerned about religious freedom and expression, especially in the old Soviet Union. The suppression of Jewish people, in particular, bothered me. There were several Pressler amendments against Soviet repression of Soviet Jewry.

My activities in the area of freedom of religion included serving on the foreign relations committee in the United States Senate for 18 years and authoring the original bills requiring the State Department to make a report on human rights and religious freedom. I was part of a group in the Senate who used to visit Charter 77 in old communist Czechoslovakia. We would publish the names of religious and human rights dissidents in the Congressional Record. The foreign minister of the Czech republic recently told me he got out of jail because I had put his name in the Congressional Record. In those days there was no way to communicate except via meetings with the religious dissidents. We did it in Romania and Czechoslovakia, and I also went to Tibet and met with religious dissidents as a United States Senator.

I was also active in an effort to have the State Department appoint an ambassador for religious freedom because, just as the pilgrims came to America for religious freedom, we need the same today. Business and agriculture thrive more if there is religious freedom. Indeed, those countries that we have the most agricultural trade and business trade with have the most religious freedom, we must continue to recognize the need for personal liberty.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal there was an article about the legislation that is in the Senate regarding religious freedom overseas. This article says that the legislation is opposed by business groups that see sanctions as counterproductive to ending such practices and fear reprisals against U.S. companies that are the targets of sanctions. I disagree, as I think that business benefits in the long run from openness. My experience in Congress was that religious dissidents helped to open up a country such as Czechoslovakia or Romania, then business benefited. Good human rights practices help good businesses.

I am still active in the Senate Prayer Breakfast. I have been going to the Congressional Prayer Breakfasts every Wednesday for 24 years. This prayer breakfast association also hosts the National Prayer Breakfast in February in Washington, which the President and the Vice President attend. There are branches of leadership prayer breakfasts not just for Christians but for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Shintoists and other faiths all around the world. Representatives of those gatherings come to Washington in February to attend the National Prayer Breakfast.

I do telecommunications work now in different countries. As I travel, I try to meet with these groups in the countries I visit. I have always found that they feel strongly that religious freedom and the freedom for small groups to exist is essential to opening up. A society that is open to religion is open to business, and is open to tourism. Such a society is a very healthy.

There are two examples that I want to give where religious freedom and individual freedoms have won out against the odds. These examples have not been recognized or admitted by many historians.

The first example in my experience is Central and South America in the 1980s. I was a strong supporter of President Reagan’s policy regarding the Contras and all of his policies in Central America. They have worked. It was a hard fight politically. We have forgotten. It is not written in any history book. Those votes were very difficult especially for senators from the Midwest. History has proven that Ronald Reagan’s policies were right in Central America. If it weren’t for those policies, we might well have had a major Communist beachhead in Central America. The Sandinistas certainly were not interested in religious freedom. But that period seems to be almost forgotten. The history books should say that it is almost as significant as the end of the Cold War in terms of influence on religious freedom and freedom in Central and South America.

The second example that isn’t in the history book—I haven’t found many history books that have said it—but Paul Johnson, the English historian, has written one in which he suggests that maybe the U.S. was correct in what we were trying to do in Vietnam. Since the communists took over in Vietnam, there has been almost no freedom. I have been back there three or four times. The country has suffered under a brutal dictatorship.

I will tell you a personal experience. I was born and baptized a Catholic. I went to a very old-fashioned Catholic grade school and high school where nuns taught. By the time I became a senator, all my former nuns had been radicalized into the Catholic left and were coming down to Nicaragua. In the Midwest, they had foundations that would take people down to Nicaragua. They all opposed Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America. In addition to Catholics, other church groups in the upper Midwest—Minnesota; Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Iowa—were radicalized or influenced, and they all were supporting the Sandinistas. This seemed a phenomenon to me because the nuns had seemed so conservative 20 years earlier.

There were various diverse religions functioning in South Vietnam. These were very much the seeds of and supporters of the movements toward democracy. I recall I working with the 25th infantry division and I was also working with the Korean White Horse Tiger Division. In that particular area, there were several temples that were closed when the communists took over. Lee Kuan Yew, the senior minister and former Prime Minister of Singapore, reminds us that China had ambitions on Malaysia, Singapore and even the Philippines, and there were communist insurgencies in all of those countries. By taking a stand in Vietnam, we made it costly for the Chinese to advance thus they gave up.

Concerning these two examples of religious freedom being the seed of other freedoms: In Central America, it was allowed to flourish because Ronald Reagan stood firm and had just barely enough support. In Vietnam, it was stamped out and it led to almost 20 years of the dark ages in Vietnam.

I enjoyed Mr. Muller’s speech here last night. But I disagree with him a little bit in putting his new association in the UN for its first big meeting. I am not against the UN, but I am worried about the UN. My observation has been that the UN has not pushed hard enough for religious and human rights. They have just given lip service. I served twice as a delegate to the UN from the Senate and it struck me that a lot of people and organizations at the UN are trying to put sand in the eyes of the United States.

For example, yesterday’s paper says Amnesty International is set to launch a year-long campaign aimed at highlighting human rights abuses in the world’s remaining superpower: the United States of America. The campaign begins with a broadside today. It was the world’s leading human rights group presenting a report listing abuses committed by US authorities. The list included widespread and persistent police brutality, endemic physical and sexual violence against prisoners, racist application of the death penalty, and use of high-tech repression tools, such as electroshock devices and incapacitating chemical sprays.

This is just an exaggeration. It is like a doctor who has a whole hospital full of dying patients and yet spends all day looking at a little bruise. We have problems in the United States. All countries do. Rodney King was tragically beaten up, but the people who beat him went to jail and the police chief was fired. Our Supreme Court has heard cases. There is a process in place regarding minorities and the number of prisoners and so forth. Now these international organizations want to try so hard to put some salt in the eyes of people who are in the United States. That is my problem with the UN, because when I was up there, they were always trying to embarrass us somehow. So I don’t have much faith in the UN or in Amnesty International in terms of fighting for religious rights.

Religious freedom will gain from having e-mail and websites. In the old days when we used to go visit Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. They couldn’t communicate with the outside world. Now such groups can.We can use telecommunications to promote religious information and religious freedom.

If you look at the history of the last 20 years—and you will be able to read this in history books some day in the future—you will see some lessons. If you look at Central America and the stand President Reagan took, you realize he was probably right. His stance saved Central America from becoming communist and from decades of oppression, such as that experienced in Vietnam. In the one case, where we persevered and we stuck to our principles, in Central America, religious freedom and human freedom and business development came forth. In Vietnam, where we compromised our principles and didn’t stick it out, a dark brutal age fell over Vietnam. I have been there. There is no religious freedom there. There is no business going in there. There is not going to be until it opens up. Our original policies were right. We should have remained aligned with our principles.

So we have to follow a path of principle, the path of religious freedom. If we follow that path it will lead to human rights.