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Remarks Following Discussions With Religious Leaders

June 18, 1998

Thank you very much, Madam Secretary, to the Members of Congress who are here, and the religious leaders, especially to Rabbi Schneier, Archbishop McCarrick, Reverend Argue. I thank all of you for your devotion to religious liberty and to the proposition that America's advocacy of freedom should, indeed must, include our advocacy of religious liberty.

I'd like to say a special word of thanks to John Shattuck, our Assistant Secretary of State, who has worked so hard to promote human rights around the world and whom, I hope, will soon be moving on to other important responsibilities for the United States. John, thank you very, very much for doing a great job. Sandy Berger and Madeleine and I rely on you a lot, and we hope you'll have another good run soon.

I'd also like to say a special word of appreciation to Reverend Argue, Archbishop McCarrick, and Rabbi Schneier for leading a delegation to China on a mission that grew out of my meeting with President Jiang last fall. In their discussions with Chinese Government leaders and religious groups of all kinds, they were our forceful advocates for religious liberty. Their visit helped to make the Chinese people aware of the fundamental importance of this issue, not simply to the American Government but to the American people.

We have just met to discuss their trip, and I have received from them a very impressive report of their activities, replete with their specific recommendations about where we go from here. And their insights will certainly have a big influence on my activities and conversations as I prepare to embark for China.

I also want to thank all the religious leaders who have joined us here today who have been part of our advisory process. 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 recognizes 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 centers 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 laboring so hard to build for the 21st century*—for this one in particular—[laughter]—exhibit A— [laughter]—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 nonbelievers; 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, as she said so eloquently, have made promotion of religious freedom around the world a top priority. I have had extensive discussions on the subject with President Yeltsin, as all of you know, and with other world leaders. State Department officials here and overseas now give greater attention to religious persecution and other religious liberty issues then ever before. We have a highlevel advisory committee on which many of you serve, and I thank you for the work you have done.

Now Secretary Albright is creating a new position, a Senior Adviser for International Religious Freedom, to make sure that religious liberty concerns get high and close attention in our foreign policy. And I am pleased to announce the appointment today of the gentleman to my right, Dr. Robert Seiple, to the job. As President of World Vision United States, he has applied skill and determination to World Vision's faithbased struggle against poverty in more than 100 countries. To this position he brings a genuinely unusual combination of deep personal faith, sweeping global perspective, the toughness and determination of a Marine Vietnam veteran, and an extraordinary proven capacity for leadership. He is here with his family, and in a moment I want to ask him to say a few words. But we thank you for your willingness to serve.

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 decisionmakers to advance the cause of religious liberty. It crosses party; it crosses region; it crosses philosophy; it crosses different religious faiths. 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 doing what works. 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." Many of you in this room have been part of those defeats. But at the end of all of them there lies ultimate victory. That is what we must believe; that is the reality we must create.

Again, let me thank you all and now ask Dr. Seiple to come forward to make a few remarks.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 3:08 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president, Appeal of Conscience Foundation; Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Newark; Rev. Don Argue, former president, National Association of Evangelicals; President Jiang Zemin of China; and President Boris Yeltsin of Russia.

* At this point, a baby cried.

William J. Clinton, Remarks Following Discussions With Religious Leaders Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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