Religious persecution is perceived as something from the dark past, yet more people have died for their beliefs in the 20th century - even excluding the horrors of the Holocaust - than in all other eras combined.

That tragic fact should be impetus for global pressure on nations that make a mockery of unrestricted worship. The United States ought to be at the forefront of that effort on humanitarian and democratic grounds. Yet too often matters of conscience are swept aside by business or other interests.The United States should prudently modify its policies in those instances, something that would happen under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 proposed in the Senate.

Sponsored by Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., S.1868 would require President Clinton to impose diplomatic and/or economic sanctions in 77 countries cited in the State Department's annual report on religious persecution.

The president argues he should have unrestricted flexibility to negotiate with oppressive nations to exert positive influence for change. Powerful business lobbies concur. That philosophical approach does have some merit. But too often American silence is perceived as acquiescence by abusers and their victims.

The act provides sufficient leeway and elasticity to not hamstring the chief executive in political or economic negotiations. It provides a menu of corrective actions ranging in severity and scope, from which at least one must be chosen and implemented when dealing with the world's worst offenders.

A similar bill in the House, passed 375-41 over staunch business opposition, would have much the same effect. It creates a State Department office to monitor and report religious persecution and to authorize sanctions against countries guilty of abuses.

The two measures are expected to blend later this year and deserve unified, bipartisan support in both houses. Billed as a battle between business and the religious right, the issue really is about encouraging the fundamental freedom of unfettered worship worldwide. It is about coming to the aid of countless people imprisoned, harassed, tortured and killed for expressing religious rights Americans often take for granted.