Behind the Headlines: Religious Persecution Measure Poses Dilemma for Jewish Groups

Republican leaders in Congress are pushing ahead in their campaign to fight religious persecution abroad.

But it remains to be seen whether legislation now pending, which was inspired by the movement to free Soviet Jewry, will have substantial Jewish support.

Some religious groups and lawmakers have been actively seeking that support, saying Jews should be behind the effort given the historical alliances when it came to efforts to rescue persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

But many Jewish groups, echoing the Clinton administration, fear that the legislation would be ineffective and create more problems than it solves.

Meeting with religious leaders last week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) declared religious freedom a core U.S. value and vowed to make the fight against religious persecution a top legislative priority.

While stopping short of endorsing any specific legislation, their comments nonetheless gave a boost to supporters of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, which is beginning to move swiftly through the House and Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the House and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in the Senate, would require economic sanctions against any country engaged in religious persecution. It would also give those fleeing religious persecution priority in gaining asylum in the United States.

It would also create a new office within the White House to monitor the treatment of religious minorities around the world. The legislation would initially require the director of the office to examine the treatment of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Bahais before moving on to other faiths.

The bill’s sponsors say most of the abuses are occurring within militant Islamic countries and the few remaining Communist nations. They have cited Sudan, China, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam and Algeria as some of the worst offenders of religious freedom.

The fight against religious persecution has emerged as a leading political cause in recent months, largely as a result of a grass-roots campaign organized by a coalition of religious groups led by evangelical Christians.

The coalition has sought to model the campaign after the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s.

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

Church leaders have sought input and support from their Jewish counterparts, but most Jewish organizations — along with a number of mainstream Christian groups such as the National Council of Churches — maintain serious reservations about the legislation.

While fully supporting the concept of combatting religious persecution, most Jewish legislative activists are worried that focusing solely on religious persecution could send a message that other forms of persecution — political or ethnic persecution, for example — matter less and detract from broader efforts to addresses human rights abuses in general.

Specifically, Jewish activists remain troubled by the notion of creating a White House czar with a focus on religious persecution. They are also concerned about the sanctions mandated by the bill and about how it might impact U.S. refugee policy.

The Clinton administration flatly opposes the bill.

Testifying before the House International Relations Committee last week, John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights, said that although the administration "strongly supports the objectives of eliminating religious persecution," the Wolf-Specter legislation threatens to do more harm than good in addressing religious freedom issues.

"We fear reprisals by repressive governments against victims, as well as an end to any dialogue on religious freedom, in retaliation for the sanctions," Shattuck said, adding that it might hurt "vital bilateral relations with key allies and regional powers."

Jewish activists, for their part, have worked hard in recent weeks to make the legislation more palatable.

The bill’s implications for U.S. refugee policy have been a key concern because the bill does not specify how the number of refugee slots — which are fixed each year — would be affected or how to fund slots to accommodate additional refugees.

Jewish groups have been concerned that by creating a new class of refugees, the legislation could force Jews and others out of a limited number of slots.

Jewish organizational officials, led by the Council of Jewish Federations, took up their concerns with the bill’s sponsors and were given assurances that changes would be made to ensure that existing refugee policy would not be affected. The officials have not, however, endorsed the bill.

There is no guarantee, moreover, that such changes will actually be implemented.

A House International Relations subcommittee was scheduled to vote on the Wolf- Specter legislation Thursday. No action has yet been scheduled in the Senate.

Most Jewish groups are reserving final judgment on the legislation until the final wording becomes clear.

"The Jewish community really wants to stand with those who fight against religious persecution and they want to stand with Christian groups who have stood by our side in the past," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"But they don’t want to do something that will be counterproductive to its very goals."

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which has helped bring the issue to the fore, said he sees the Specter-Wolf legislation as imperfect, but a "good starting point."

"Right now, it’s the only game in town and there is no consensus," said Eckstein, who builds bridges with Christian groups, including evangelical Christians. "We’re still hopeful that legislation that does have a consensus and does bring greater attention to the issue will be created."

One Jewish group that has actively endorsed the bill is the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition.

"The Jewish people have suffered through the world’s most heinous acts of persecution and we cannot allow the tragedies we have endured to be perpetrated upon others," said Cheryl Halpern, national chairwoman of the NJC. "We must speak out."

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