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Focus on Issues: Jews and Christian Persecution; Good Cause, but Faulty Legislation

As momentum builds in an increasingly popular crusade to fight religious persecution abroad, the Jewish community remains supportive of the effort, but hesitant to endorse new legislation directed at the problem.

Over the past year and a half, church leaders have been seeking to model a campaign to end the persecution of Christians overseas along the lines of the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s.

A steady campaign to heighten public awareness has transformed the issue of anti-Christian persecution from an abstract phenomenon to what is rapidly becoming a leading political cause.

Most of the abuses are occurring within militant Islamic countries and the few remaining Communist nations.

In Pakistan, for example, law prohibits speaking or acting against the prophet Mohammed, and violations are punishable by death.

In Sudan, the Islamic government has bombed and burned Christians villages and taken Christian women and children as slaves. And in China, thousands of Roman Catholic and Protestant Chinese have been imprisoned for practicing their faith.

The effort initially was supported by a coalition of predominantly conservative Christian and Jewish social activists — led by Michael Horowitz, a Jewish scholar and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. But is has since broadened to include mainstream Christian and Jewish groups.

Several lawmakers, including two Jewish senators — Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) — also have taken up the cause.

Specter, together with Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the House, recently introduced legislation that seeks to put the force of sanctions behind the effort to combat religious persecution.

Jewish leaders, for their part, are actively pressing the issue. But most Jewish groups, along with a number of leading Christian groups, maintain serious reservations about the Specter-Wolf legislation.

They fear, among other things, that focusing only on religious persecution – – and not on human rights abuses in general — may prove too narrow.

They further worry that the legislation could adversely affect U.S. refugee and immigration policy for Jews and others.

Despite divisions among religious groups surrounding the issue, pressure has been percolating in recent months as church leaders have worked to bring national attention to what they see as a growing trend of anti-Christian persecution around the globe.

Responding to these concerns, the Clinton administration in November formed a State Department advisory committee of prominent religious leaders and scholars to help promote religious freedom. The panel includes two Jewish members, Rabbi Irving Greenberg of New York and Deborah Lipstadt, professor of religion at Emory University.

The committee is holding a series of fact-finding meetings and hopes to complete a report on worldwide religious persecution later this year.

The Specter and Wolf legislation, introduced in May in their respective houses, would create a White House office charged with monitoring religious persecution, while establishing various aid and economic sanctions to punish violators of religious liberty.

It would also ensure expedited asylum proceedings and priority consideration for victims of religious persecution seeking to immigrate to the United States.

In addition, the legislation would require that the United States consider a country’s record on religious persecution when weighing admission to the World Trade Organization — a provision that takes direct aim at China, which is seeking membership.

Advocates hope that the Wolf-Specter legislation would provide a shot in the arm for their cause the way the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment did for the Soviet Jewry movement. That legislation linked U.S. trade policy to a country’s emigration practices.

Jewish groups, while expressing support for the broader effort, have stopped short of endorsing the legislation.

While it could help in developing new tools to combat religious persecution, said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, as with all such legislation, "you have to examine individual provisions to determine how effective they are going to be."

The impact of the legislation on U.S. refugee and immigration policy remains unclear, and for that reason, Jewish activists say they are eyeing it warily.

The bill does not specify how the number of refugee slots would be affected, or where funding would come from to accommodate additional refugees.

"It could force out others who are being admitted now," said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

In addition, some Jewish observers are concerned that highlighting religious persecution — particularly by designating a new White House office to focus on the problem — could come at the expense of other victims of human rights abuses.

"We’re also concerned about the persecution of people on the basis of political views and on the basis of ethnicity," said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations’ Washington Action Office.

Some Jewish observers also expressed concern that the sanctions in the legislation would prove ineffective unless they are tailored to address the unique conditions in various countries.

Specter’s office has indicated that he is willing to work with Jewish groups to address their concerns.

Even advocates of the legislative initiative concede that it needs improvement.

"The Jewish organizations, by and large, are raising some very real and legitimate concerns with the Wolf-Specter legislation, and they have to be worked out," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has helped bring the issue to the fore.

Eckstein said the legislation’s intent is simply "to get this on the map."

Horowitz, who had a significant hand in writing the Wolf-Specter legislation, acknowledged in an interview that "there’s a lot more talking that needs to be done."

But he insisted that the Specter-Wolf legislation remain the central framework and that Jewish leaders get on board.

"The Jewish community, one hopes, will move from a kind of lip service support to an active support," Horowitz said.

He added: "I think Jews, many of whom are rooted in a reflexive anti-Christian faith view, have got some hard readjusting and thinking to do, and I think that explains in some measure the ambivalence that some Jewish leaders are showing."

Hordes of ADL said that assessment amounts to a "total misreading of where the community is."

"Religious persecution impacts on all of us," Hordes said. "As a religious minority that has suffered over the centuries, we are very sensitive to this issue" and "we’re committed to working to redress persecution where it exists."

Horowitz said he ultimately sees the larger effort to address anti-Christian persecution as a "church-based undertaking and not a classic Washington bucket- shop operation."

That is why church leaders are planning an international day of prayer in November to heighten awareness of the issue and create momentum to help push the legislation into law. At the same time, advocates say they will be looking to President Clinton in coming months to use the bully pulpit to make the issue a national priority.

Jewish leaders, meanwhile, plan to continue sharing with their Christian counterparts lessons from the community’s 30-year campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

"We succeeded because we spoke with a unified voice," Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recently said.

"It is true that we had different approaches and used different strategies within the community, but on the whole, the Jewish community made the compromises we had to make in order to speak publicly with a unified and forceful voice."

As the campaign progress, that may prove one of the most useful examples to follow.

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