WASHINGTON (Sep. 30)
Mindful of the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, evangelical leaders are seeking to launch a similar campaign to end the persecution of Christians around the world.
After months of prodding from church leaders, the Clinton administration and Congress are beginning to take action to address religious persecution.
Church officials say many Islamic countries and the few remaining Communist nations continue to target their Christian populations.
The administration is forming an advisory committee on religious freedom consisting of about 20 prominent religious leaders. The committee, to be housed in the State Department, will include at least one Jew with expertise on religious persecution as well as two specialists on the persecution of Jews.
Both houses of Congress, meanwhile, have adopted a non-binding resolution condemning the “egregious human rights abuses and denials of religious liberty to Christians around the world,” and calling upon the regimes responsible to stop the persecution.
Evangelical leaders see the attention now being drawn to the issue as long overdue. But as they implore the U.S. government to fulfill its “obligation to speak out” against worldwide religious persecution, they acknowledge that their own community has remained silent for too long.
“We are intent upon changing the public perception of human rights issues from simply one that has focused for a large measure on the Jewish community — and rightly so — to one that includes the mainstream,” said Richard Cizik, policy analyst for the National Association of Evangelicals, which released a “call to action” on the issue in January.
For their part, Jewish leaders say it is important for the Jewish community to realize that religious persecution is endemic around the world. At the same time, they emphasize that the community has been highly active in defending human rights both in the United States and abroad.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, stressed the importance of building inter-religious coalitions to combat religious persecution. Such cooperation, he added, proved integral in the national campaign to free Soviet Jews.
Cizik said church leaders plan to seek Jewish support publicly as the campaign progresses.
“We would like to think that we can learn a great deal from the Jewish community,” Cizik said. “They have walked this road before and have experienced firsthand the hurdles.”
Some observers, however, view the task of curbing religious persecution as a far more complex problem than freeing Soviet Jews. In that situation, Jews were seeking to leave an oppressive country; now, the goal is to change the way that oppressive countries treat religious minorities.
Still, Jewish leaders intend to lend their voices to the cause.
“I’m confident the Jewish community would be quite responsive on this agenda,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who has pressed the administration in the past to address religious persecution. “It’s really incumbent upon us, both for moral and coalitional reasons, to speak out forcefully.”
Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of the interfaith affairs department of the Anti- Defamation League, said, “It is our obligation as fellow people of God.”
A formal announcement about the formation and makeup of the advisory committee was expected soon. The committee reportedly will make recommendations to the president and secretary of state in areas such as diplomacy, refugees and the use of religious leaders to resolve disputes.
Congress’ resolution, meanwhile, states that “in the past, the United States has used its international leadership to vigorously take up the cause of other persecuted religious minorities” and calls on the president to “expand and invigorate the United States’ advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians.”
The resolution cites Sudan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, Egypt, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba and several countries in the former Soviet Union as frequent violators of religious liberty.
“Today, many Christians around the world are being denied the right to practice their religion,” Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), sponsor of the resolution in the Senate, said in a statement. “That would be bad enough. But other Christians are being sold into slavery. Some are being thrown into prison. Some are tortured. Many are killed.
“We must do everything we can in our dealings with other countries to end these practices.”