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Focus on Issues: Recalling Soviet Jewry Campaign, Christians Seek End to Persecution

March 24, 1997
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In the Egyptian village of Ezbet Dawoud, 300 miles south of Cairo, gunmen believed to be Islamic militants walked into a predominantly Christian enclave this month and shot everyone in sight.

News accounts of the attack on Egypt’s Christian minority, the second of its kind in a month and one of the bloodiest since 1991, reached Christian and Jewish leaders as they were gathering on Capitol Hill for a daylong conference on the worldwide persecution of Christians.

The attack, while neither singular nor unprecedented, provided a timely, graphic illustration of what many say is a growing trend of anti-Christian persecution around the globe.

For more than a year, evangelical Christian leaders have been seeking to raise awareness of the issue and launch a campaign to end anti-Christian persecution.

And they are using as a model the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews.

Jewish groups have begun to lend their full support to the cause.

At the Capitol Hill forum, which was sponsored by the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, American Jewish officials shared with their Christian counterparts lessons learned from the community’s 30-year campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

“While we think of the Soviet Jewry movement as a major success,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, “we tend to forget that it was a very long and difficult road.”

For decades, Soviet Jews were locked behind the Iron Curtain, frequently refused permission to emigrate and persecuted when they tried.

Many of the lessons derived from that effort, which ultimately led to the release of more than 1 million Soviet Jews, “are transferable to the issues before us today,” Hordes said.

Addressing the gathering, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said, “The campaign to save Soviet Jewry is an example of what can be done when our conscience informs our policy. Today I think it can serve as a call to action for those who now seek to protect Christians who are persecuted throughout the world.”

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

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

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

Other frequent violators of religious liberty include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Nigeria, Cuba and Uzbekistan, according to those who monitor such abuses.

“The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died this century simply for being Christians than in the first 19 centuries after the birth of Christ,” Nina Shea, director of the Puebla Program of Freedom House and a leading expert on the issue, writes in her book, “In the Lion’s Den.”

“They have been persecuted and martyred before an unknowing, indifferent world and a largely silent Christian community.”

In fact, it was a Jewish scholar, Michael Horowitz, who is credited with penetrating the public consciousness with this issue.

A senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, Horowitz wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in July 1995, discussing the “overwhelming” evidence of “growing and large-scale persecution of evangelicals and Christian converts.”

Horowitz championed the cause at a time when Christian leaders were paying little attention to the issue. Indeed, many church leaders now admit to having been asleep at the wheel.

Since the publication of his piece, the movement to end anti-Christian persecution has been slowly gaining momentum.

In January 1996, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a “call to action” on the issue, urging the U.S. government to take vigorous steps to combat anti-Christian persecution.

In September, both houses of Congress adopted a non-binding resolution condemning the “egregious human rights abuses and denials of religious liberty to Christians around the world.”

And in November, the Clinton administration formed an advisory committee of prominent religious leaders and scholars to help promote religious freedom. The panel includes two Jews, Rabbi Irving Greenberg of New York and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt.

Now, some lawmakers are aiming to put the force of legislation behind the effort.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) are seeking to introduce legislation in both houses requiring that the White House have a special adviser on religious persecution and that sanctions be established to punish international violators of religious liberty.

Providing for sanctions “will put some real teeth into the issue,” Specter said at the gathering.

Advocates, moreover, hope that such legislation would provide a shot in the arm similar to what the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment provided for the Soviet Jewry movement. That legislation linked U.S. trade policy to a country’s emigration practices.

“We are witnessing the beginning of a broad-based movement which will insist that the United States government take serious and important steps to use its influence to persuade the offending foreign governments to stop these denials of basic human rights,” said Richard Land, president of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Jewish leaders in attendance, still outraged by a resolution adopted by the SBC last year calling for the conversion and “salvation” of the Jewish people, agreed to look past Land’s participation in the forum and focus on the matter at hand.

Advocates said one of the initial steps the United States should consider is amending asylum guidelines of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to enable persecuted Christians to immigrate to America more easily.

For their part, Jewish officials stressed the importance of organizing grass- roots involvement around a clear, consistent, unified message as Christian leaders move forward with their campaign.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, enumerated several strategies that the Jewish community once used, including putting a human face on the problem, as church leaders bring the cause to their congregants.

Above all, Jewish leaders emphasized the need for patience.

Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, stressed the need for perseverance and said Christian leaders should expect the campaign to be a “long-term process with many twists and turns.”

The advice appeared to infuse church leaders with new confidence and resolve.

Addressing Jewish leaders at the gathering, the Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said, “You have given us through your experience with Soviet Jewry the opportunity to see that the future can be created.”

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