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Clinton Administration Forms Committee on Religious Freedom

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Reacting to ongoing human rights abuses against religious minorities around the world, the Clinton administration has formed an advisory committee of prominent religious leaders and scholars to help promote religious freedom.

The move comes after months of prodding from evangelical Christian leaders. They have been seeking to launch a campaign to end the persecution of Christians overseas, which would model the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s.

The 20-member committee, which will report directly to the secretary of state, will provide information about the conditions religious minorities face and recommend ways religious leaders can help resolve disputes.

“Religious and ethnic conflict have often been at the forefront of human rights dilemmas in recent years,” Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck said in announcing the committee’s formation.

His own experience working with Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim religious leaders in Bosnia showed him “how important it is to stand up for religious freedom and tolerance,” said Shattuck, who will chair the panel.

The committee consists of religious leaders who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Bahai. Scholars with expertise in the Holocaust, international conflict resolution and religious diversity will also participate.

The formation of the committee “reflects a growing sensitivity that in fact there is significant religious persecution out there,” said committee member Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of CLAL — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Given the Jewish community’s efforts to free Soviet Jewry — and the support it received from the American public — Greenberg said, Jews “should be particularly sensitive” to religious persecution.

“Just as we were helped, we want to help others,” he added.

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of religion at Emory University and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, was also named to the panel.

Evangelical leaders, for their part, gave a tepid response to news of the committee’s formation.

“It’s a start,” said Richard Cizik, policy analyst for the National Association of Evangelicals, which had issued a “call to action” on worldwide religious persecution in January.

The administration’s move shows “our government acknowledging that religion is a growing factor in foreign policy considerations,” Cizik said.

Some evangelical leaders, however, had been pressing the Clinton administration to adopt concrete policies to help curb religious persecution and protect the rights of religious dissidents.

Evangelical leaders also expressed concern that an advisory committee with such diverse racial and religious representation would be predestined to gridlock due to fundamental differences.

For that reason, evangelical leaders had urged the State Department to appoint a special adviser to focus specifically on human rights abuses against Christians around the world. They cited in particular problems in China, Cuba, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union as well as several Islamic countries, including Egypt.

The State Department resisted that idea, instead appointing a committee with a broad mandate to address religious strife everywhere.

The first meeting is expected to take place early next year.

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