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Effort for religious persecution ban resumes with more diverse coalition

WASHINGTON (BP)–An expanded coalition of religious and public policy leaders renewed their commitment to persecuted believers overseas and expressed solid support for a legislative remedy to their plight in a Feb. 4 meeting in Washington.
The meeting, described as a religious persecution summit and sponsored by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, demonstrated the increased support a revised Freedom From Religious Persecution Act has received from a diversity of organizations. Not only
are many conservative and evangelical groups behind the bill, but the U.S. Catholic Conference, some Jewish organizations and the International Campaign for Tibet now are strong supporters.
“For a long time, (the bill) was characterized, I think unfairly, as coming from” evangelical conservatives solely, said Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a driving force behind the
legislation and summit. “We now have a situation where the Campaign for Tibet is as committed to this bill as the Christian Coalition.”
The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., is intended to reduce and eliminate religious persecution in other countries. The changes, which will be made in a House of Representatives committee in March, include:
— moving the office of religious persecution monitoring from the White House to the State Department;
— giving the president the authority to waive the bill’s penalties not only in the interest of national security but if it would further the bill’s objectives.
Additionally, the new version of the legislation includes language clarifying it covers adherents of all religions and it does not prohibit humanitarian aid to people in countries found guilty of persecution or
refusing to halt persecution. Supporters said the bill never was limited to persecution of Christians.
At the meeting, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R.-Texas, expressed confidence his chamber should be able to pass the legislation before mid-summer. The bill “is not optional; it is a moral imperative,” Armey told participants.
Armey’s declaration and the presence of other members of Congress at the meeting “shows that we’ve reached critical mass in terms of the Congress,” said Richard Land, the ERLC’s president and moderator of the meeting.
The participants seemed “encouraged and reinvigorated to go out and to start that second mile to push for passage of Wolf-Specter, understanding that Wolf-Specter is not going to be a cure-all,” Land said. “It’s just a very necessary, minimum first step in a long-term campaign to raise the consciousness and the awareness of the American
people to the horrendous persecution of Christians and other people of faith that is going on around the world.”
Gary Bauer, president of Family Research Council, told reporters he thought “everybody, including Congressman Wolf and Senator Specter, would like even a stronger bill, and it has been disappointing to see some of the business community opposing this. But this is a great first step and it will send an incredible message not only around our country but around the world if it successfully passes, and then we’ll build on that.”
Not only have some segments of the business community fought the bill, but the Clinton administration also opposed the earlier version.
John Carr of the Catholic Conference told reporters, “Our hope now is to go back to people and say, ‘The concerns you’ve had have been addressed. Let’s deal with this piece of legislation, not the old fears,
not the old stories. Let’s talk about what we’re going to do together to send a signal that America cares about people suffering for their faith.’ So the fact this bill has been modified lays the basis for broad, bipartisan passage of this legislation.”
Last year, the bill moved no further than a House International Relations subcommittee. The full committee is expected to vote on the revised measure March 17.
Specter and Wolf both spoke at the summit. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif.; Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R.-N.Y.; Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., and Rep. Robert Aderholt, R.-Ala., endorsed the bill at the meeting.
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Pelosi said. “I have no doubt … that we will convince this administration that this is the right thing to do.”
The meeting followed by two years a Washington summit that made many evangelical leaders aware for the first time of the widespread persecution being experienced by Christians, especially those in communist and Islamic-controlled countries.
Some speakers at the most recent meeting warned the issue is critical not only for the persecuted but for this country.
This is a “defining moment for America,” said Charles Colson, president of Prison Fellowship. “Yes, people’s lives are at stake; so too is the soul of our nation.”
The meeting, held at a hotel near the U.S. Capitol, included nearly 50 participants seated at tables, with another 50 observers, including reporters, present.
Among those attending were former Education Secretary and federal drug czar William Bennett, William Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Richard Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Randy Tate of Christian Coalition and
Nina Shea of the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom.
Other organizations represented at the meeting included the International Campaign for Tibet, Voice of the Martyrs, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity International, National Association of Evangelicals, National Jewish Coalition, International Day of Prayer
for the Persecuted Church, Salvation Army, Open Doors With Brother Andrew, Focus on the Family, World Evangelical Fellowship, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, International Christian Concern, Concerned Women for America, Catholic Alliance, Traditional Values Coalition, Sojourners, Christian Legal Society, Center for Jewish and Christian
Values, Compassion International and Ethics and Public Policy Center.