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Persecution bills need action soon, congressional leaders told

WASHINGTON (BP)–More than 80 religious, academic and public policy leaders have joined together to ask the leadership of Congress to act this year on legislation designed to curb religious persecution in foreign countries.
Signing onto the letter were Tom Elliff, president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Jim Henry, SBC president immediately preceding Elliff; and Richard Land, president of the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The letter — which was sent to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, House of Representatives Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle — asks for the leadership’s assurances that committee action will be scheduled in such a way as to gain a floor vote before Congress adjourns this year on legislation to “impose prohibitive costs on countries involved in widespread and ongoing persecutions of vulnerable communities of faith.” It requests hearings begin in September and floor action be taken by early November, in time for the second Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which many churches will observe Nov. 16.
Such action “will send the strongest possible signal to all regimes now operating as if hunting licenses were in effect against vulnerable communities of faith,” the letter says.
A hearing on such a measure is scheduled Sept. 10 in the House. The International Relations Committee will hear testimony on the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., and in the Senate by Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa.
In their letter, the 81 leaders say the Wolf-Specter bill should be the basis for any anti-persecution legislation, but some of them may work for it to be strengthened.
The bill would:
— establish a new White House position, director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, to report on persecution overseas;
— provide for sanctions against governments that support or fail to prevent persecution;
— improve asylum proceedings for victims of religious persecution.
The legislation also levels immediate sanctions against Sudan, an African country that bill proponents say has one of the worst records on religious persecution. Enslavement of Christian women and children is commonly practiced.
Among other countries named in the letter as sites of persecution are China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iran and Indonesia.
The persecution of Christians, largely in communist and Muslim-dominated countries, has gained increasing attention in the United States in the last 18 months. It is estimated about 100 million Christians have been martyred in this century, more than the previous 19 centuries combined. It also is estimated from 200 to 250 million Christians will be persecuted in 1997.
In response to calls for action to thwart such persecution, the Clinton administration named last fall a 20-member, State Department-administered committee on religious liberty overseas. Henry and National Association of Evangelicals President Don Argue, both signers of the letter, are members of the committee.
The Wolf-Specter bill calls for the director of the Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring to make an annual report determining whether a country is guilty of “category one” or “category two” religious persecution. Category one describes government support for or implementation of widespread religious persecution, including killing, rape, imprisonment, abduction, torture, enslavement or forced mass resettlement. In category two, the government does not carry out persecution but fails to make serious efforts to prevent it.
Among the sanctions provided for are a ban on all exports to foreign government entities that carry out acts of persecution, as well as elimination of non-humanitarian aid and development bank loans to offending governments. The legislation also instructs the president to consider religious persecution as an important factor in whether to support a country’s membership in the World Trade Organization.
Signers to the Aug. 29 letter included former U.S. Senator William Armstrong, William Bennett of Empower America, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Gary Bauer of Family Research Council, Eastern College professor Tony Campolo, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, California pastor Jack Hayford, Don Hodel of Christian Coalition, Florida pastor James Kennedy, Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America and Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action.