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State Department committee condemns religious persecution

WASHINGTON (BP)–A U.S. State Department advisory committee meeting for the first time condemned religious persecution and pledged to help those seeking to flee such treatment.

The Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad adopted a statement Feb. 13 saying it “condemns all forms of religious persecution, as well as the climate of religious intolerance that has led to armed conflict and even genocide.” The 20-member panel also committed to provide data to the federal government about religious persecution and to “develop recommendations to combat religious intolerance and assist those seeking refuge from persecution.”

The committee’s initial meeting came a year after the evangelical community began calling for the Clinton administration to take action on the persecution of Christians in foreign lands. They requested the White House address the growing problem by naming a special adviser or commission reporting directly to the president. When the State Department-administered committee was named in November, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, and others called the action unsatisfactory, partly because State Department policies formed a portion of the problem, they said.

The advisory committee “was unified that action must be taken to deal with religious persecution,” said National Association of Evangelicals President Don Argue, a committee member. While Argue said in a prepared statement he was impressed with the Clinton administration’s commitment to address the problem, he is concerned there be “significant action soon rather than placating rhetoric.

“It is also extremely important that the president and the secretary of State make strong public statements condemning religious persecution,” Argue said.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed the ligiously diverse committee but again failed to condemn Christian persecution, which Clinton also has failed to do publicly. Albright spoke of “the harassment of Christians, the persecution of Jews, the denial of rights to the Baha’is or the Buddhists, or violence against Islam or any other repression of legitimate religious rights.”

In a Feb. 12 speech to the committee, First Lady Hillary Clinton said “greater weight” should be given human rights in the United States’ foreign policy considerations, NAE reported.

In its statement, the advisory committee strongly encouraged the government “to ensure that support for religious freedom worldwide is a paramount factor” in U.S. foreign policy. It also urged the Clinton administration “to be bold, as well as prudent, in combatting the intolerable violations of freedom of religion worldwide and to take every appropriate action to foster public awareness of the issue.”

Will Dodson, the Christian Life Commission’s director of government relations, said he was encouraged Albright and Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck, chairman of the advisory committee, both said “religious freedom should be a major component of America’s foreign policy.”

“Our concern throughout this process will be to see to it that the committee focus upon the main thing, and the main thing is that Christians are being killed around the world and otherwise seriously persecuted because of their faith,” said Dodson, who sat in on the meeting as an observer. “This is an issue that deserves far more attention than it has been given.

“There are two bottom lines. One is the protection of our brothers and sisters in Christ of whatever nationality and wherever they are located around the globe. The other bottom line is that the United States should stand for more than economic liberty to the rest of the world. It should stand for freedom in the highest and best sense of that word, which certainly includes the right to worship and serve God according to the dictates of conscience.

“What we should hope for, and indeed we should expect, out of this is that greater public awareness of the persecution of Christians results and furthermore that tangible steps be taken by the government of the United States to alleviate the suffering of those persecuted for their faith and to advance true religious freedom around the world,” Dodson said. “This is not an unrealistic expectation or goal.”

During the meeting, David Little of the U.S. Institute of Peace urged the panel to include religious discrimination based on gender and race as part of its assignment, an observer reported, but no consensus developed for such an expansion.

Argue and Wilma Ellis, representing the Baha’is of the Americas, were named co-chairmen of a subcommittee on religious persecution. The committee’s next public meeting is scheduled for June.

Jim Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a member of the advisory committee but could not be reached for comment before deadline for Baptist Press. Henry is pastor of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla.

In addition to Argue and Henry, only Nina Shea, director of the religious freedom program of the Washington-based Freedom House, had been outspoken before her appointment in decrying Christian persecution. The committee also includes Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the left-leaning National Council of Churches, which opposed evangelical calls for a presidential adviser. It also includes representatives from African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Mormon groups.

Since a January 1996 summit of more than 50, mostly evangelical, leaders, calls for the U.S. government to act have been similar to a statement of conscience issued by the NAE the same month. The NAE and others asked for an end in U.S. foreign assistance to countries which allow persecution of Christians and other people of faith. The NAE and others cited politically edited reports by the State Department on religious persecution and indifferent treatment by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of those escaping Christian persecution as reasons an independent adviser or commission was needed to gain appropriate changes in U.S. policy.

It is estimated this century has had about 100 million Christian martyrs, more than the 19 previous centuries combined. Reports of persecution are prevalent in the communist countries of China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba and in Muslim-dominated countries such as Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and the Sudan.

The SBC adopted a resolution at last year’s meeting calling for prayer by Christians worldwide and urging the president and Congress to protect religious liberty. On Sept. 29, churches throughout the world observed the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Christians. The SBC resolution called on Southern Baptists to participate in the observance.

In September, both houses of Congress passed non-binding resolutions condemning the persecution of Christians and calling on the president to initiate a study of the government’s policies affecting persecuted Christians. The Senate and House of Representatives’ resolutions encouraged Clinton to name a special adviser on religious persecution.

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