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Religious persecution signals other abuses, Land says

WASHINGTON (BP)–The suppression of religious liberty signals that other freedoms are threatened in a country or region, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said at a bipartisan conference on human rights.

Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, joined members of Congress and other experts in a Nov. 1 meeting at Georgetown University aimed at fostering unified efforts across political and ideological divides to solve the problems of religious persecution, human trafficking, genocide and refugees.

Among the panelists at the half-day conference were Sens. Hillary Clinton, D.-N.Y., and Sam Brownback, R.-Kan.; Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va.; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and Wesley Clark, retired Army general and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.

Speaking to an audience largely consisting of Georgetown students, Land said he believes religious freedom “is, to use an overworked phrase, the canary in the coal mine. Whenever religious freedom is being denied, whenever religious freedom is being abused, it is like the canary in the coal mine. It is a danger signal that there are other severe problems in that society that are either present or getting ready to take place.”

The persecution of Christians and other religious adherents “is waxing rather than waning in the world,” Land said, “and it’s not going to get better without the active engagement of the United States. It seems to me to be a sad but true reality in the 21st century that without American leadership, a lot of these situations are not going to be actively addressed.”

Such problems have been, and need to be, addressed through bipartisan and multi-religious cooperation, Land and other panelists said. To do so, organizations must overcome the fear the legitimacy they have with their constituents will “rub off” on groups they “fundamentally disagree [with] on a lot of other important issues,” Land said.

Brownback, who joined Albright in convening the conference, said the goal of the event was “to build relationships and coalitions that have not previously existed.”

“There are a lot of topics we don’t agree on,” said Brownback, who has championed Senate initiatives on at least some of the issues discussed at the conference and has been mentioned as a potential Republican president candidate in 2008. “There are a whole bunch of topics we do agree upon, and you can focus on either set that you want to.”

Each side “brings a perspective, and each brings a bucket of assets to it, so together we can’t be beat,” he said. “Separated, we’ll get less done, far less done, in this process.”

Land cited several instances where cooperation across party, ideological and religious lines has succeeded, including:

— The International Religious Freedom Act (1998).

— The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000).

— The Sudan Peace Act (2002).

— The North Korea Human Rights Act (2004).

— And, on a domestic issue, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000).

Bipartisanship, however, is at a low point in his experience, said Wolf, who is in his 25th year in the House of Representatives. “This town has very little, very little of it,” he said.

Brownback named at the close of the meeting a list Albright and he had made of the five leading humanitarian crises in the world or –- as an aide to the former secretary of State put it, Brownback said -– the “top five worst places to wake up in the morning.” The list consisted of: (1) Darfur, the region of Western Sudan where about 400,000 have died and about 2.5 million have been displaced in the last three years during conflict with the government-sponsored militia; (2) North Korea, the Asian country where the communist regime is guilty of the widespread repression of human rights; (3) Burma, a Southeast Asian country ruled over by a military junta that is guilty of religious persecution and other human rights violations; (4) the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the African country in which it is estimated more than 30,000 people die each month and 2.2 million are displaced, and (5) Northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted what has been estimated to be more than 21,000 children and turned them into soldiers.

Counting all forms of trafficking, there are 27 million people globally in slavery, according to a National Geographic estimate, said Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission. That estimate is more than the number of people extracted from Africa in 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, he told the audience. He said sex trafficking victimizes about one million new children each year, according to UNICEF. Clinton and Brownback were on the trafficking panel moderated by Haugen.

The issue of human trafficking and slavery “is one that needs much greater public awareness, attention, advocacy and outrage,” Clinton told the audience. “[W]hen we think about the strides and the progress that we have made, which I believe is commendable, in the last 10 years, we have to admit that we have a very, very long way to go.”

Clinton, who appears to be the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, said there needs to be extra protection for victims who aid police, stricter requirements in the United States’ trade agreements with countries where trafficking is a problem and a greater effort to turn public opinion against trafficking in countries where it is culturally acceptable. “We even have diplomats who come here to Washington and import their own slaves,” she said.

Brownback appealed to the students in the audience, telling them they “can’t ignore” these problems.

“I don’t want you to be comfortable at this conference,” he said. “I want you to leave this planning conference and say, ‘You know, look, this is going on in my world today, and I have the capacity to do something about it,’ and you do. … you can change somebody’s life. You can give them life where they have none….”

Land asked, “And why should we do this? Well for me, as a Christian, I am commanded to love my neighbor as myself, that when anyone is suffering anywhere in the world and is not being allowed basic human rights, my responsibility is to do something about it. And secondly, as an American, there’s also a scriptural principle that to whom much is given, much is required.”

Albright and Wolf addressed the issue of refugees and displaced people, which are estimated to total 33 million worldwide. Clark and David Gompert, research professor at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, discussed putting an end to genocide. David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, joined Land on the panel about protecting religious freedom.