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Largest Jewish Organization Targets Religious Persecution Abroad with Support for Wolf-Specter Bill

Having so often been the victims of persecution, it is our duty and obligation. . . to take affirmative steps to prevent such persecution in the future

WASHINGTON, October 21, 1997 - In a letter to Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, the Reform Jewish movement today announced its support for the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 (H.R. 2431). Popularly known as the Wolf-Specter Bill, the legislation provides a comprehensive and aggressive American response to religious intolerance abroad.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the congregational and rabbinic arms, respectively, of Reform Judaism in the United States, together with other religious denominations, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, initially expressed reservations regarding several provisions of the bill, in particular, those which would establish a monitoring office within the White House and require sanctions against offending countries even when punitive action would further endanger the already threatened group.

After weeks of discussion with the legislative sponsors, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and other supporters of the bill, the UAHC and CCAR helped craft several revisions, including the placement of the monitoring office within the State Department and a presidential waiver for sanctions which would place threatened groups in danger. These latest changes made Reform Judaism's support, and likely much of the religious community, possible.

In his letter to Rep. Gilman, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of Reform Judaism's Washington-based Religious Action Center, wrote: "We cannot turn our back against innocent people whose sole ‘crime' is the expression of theirdeepest religious beliefs."

The full text of Rabbi Saperstein's letter follows:

Dear Mr. Chairman:

On behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represent 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in North America, I write to express support for the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 (H.R. 2431).

We have been horrified by stories of religious minorities suffering brutal persecution at the hands of governments and local authorities. Tibetans are ruthlessly punished by the Chinese for simply owning a picture of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama; the Islamic government in Sudan commits atrocities against its Christian population including torture, rape and murder; and in Egypt, the Coptic Christian minority has been the target of Islamic fundamentalist violence. We cannot turn our back against innocent people whose sole "crime" is the expression of their deepest religious beliefs. Having so often been the victim of persecution, it is our duty and obligation as part of the Jewish community to not only speak out against the persecution of other religious groups around the world, but to take affirmative steps to prevent such persecution in the future.

As committed as we are to combating religious persecution, the legislation as it was originally introduced was problematic for us. We appreciate your willingness to work with us in responding to our concerns regarding the legislation, and we are pleased that we are now able to support the bill. The current version of the bill addresses our most pressing issues by: broadening the religious persecution definition to include all religious groups; moving the monitoring office from the White House to the State Department; providing a presidential waiver for sanctions when they would endanger the persecuted group; exempting humanitarian and development aid; and tightening the sanctions language to limit the export ban. (We understand that additional changes may be proposed, either in advance of the markup or by amendment at the markup itself, and we may be supportive of those provisions as well.)

We look forward to working with you for the swift enactment of this legislation.

Sincerely,
Rabbi David Saperstein

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in 875 congregations throughout North America.



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