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Congressional effort to aid religious prisoners begins

WASHINGTON (BP)–Each member of Congress is being encouraged by some colleagues to adopt a prisoner of faith overseas and to become an advocate on his behalf.
Two Democrats and two Republicans announced March 17 the formation of the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force. The effort’s founders — Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan.; Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D.-Conn.; Rep. Joseph Pitts, R.-Pa., and Rep. Tony Hall, D.-Ohio — said the objectives of the new task force are to gain the release of people imprisoned because of their faith and to change hostile policies by repressive governments.
People in prison overseas “will be released in two to three months, two to three years because of this effort,” said Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., a leading congressional advocate for international human rights and religious liberty, at a news conference in support of the task force.
Religious freedom has been “too often far from the heart of America’s foreign policy,” Lieberman said. This is “one of those irresistible opportunities to do good works,” he said.
Some of the task force’s founders said letter-writing campaigns in the past have brought freedom for some prisoners of conscience. Human rights organizations have reported such advocacy by congressional members has resulted in improved prison conditions, the ending of torture and the release of prisoners, Pitts said.
Each member of Congress will receive a letter asking him to participate. Those who agree to do so will receive a prisoner profile, information on the religious freedom conditions in the prisoner’s country and the names and addresses of government officials to contact on his behalf. Human rights organizations will help provide the names of and information on religious prisoners.
Among the initial prisoners to be assigned to members of Congress are Christians in China and Sudan, Baha’is in Iran and Tibet’s Panchen Lama, the young Buddhist leader who is suspected of being imprisoned by the Chinese government.
In 1987, a similar religious prisoner adoption program began in the British Parliament. At one time, more than 150 members of Parliament participated, according to the Jubilee Campaign, the human rights group that initiated the effort.
While the congressional task force would advocate for prisoners on an individual basis, a legislative effort to thwart religious persecution will have a key test March 25. The House of Representatives International Relations Committee will vote on the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, which would establish sanctions on governments that participate in such persecution or refuse to attempt to prevent it.