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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 religiously 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 U.S. foreign policy considerations, NAE reported.
The meeting left him with the impression religious persecution has “become an important issue to the administration,” said committee member Jim Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Henry said he “really had an apprehension because of the diversity of the committee. I am much more encouraged than I was when I went up there. It’s an aggressive committee. It’s not a passive group of people.”

He was encouraged to believe the committee will deal with Christian persecution, said Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church, Orlando, Fla. About two-thirds of those who gave public testimony did so from a Christian perspective, he said.

Nina Shea, a committee member and director of the religious freedom program of the Washington-based Freedom House, regretted Albright’s failure to attach the word “persecution” to the treatment of Christians.
Albright’s willingness “to apply persecution only to Jews and not to Christians” causes her to fear the message has not gotten through to the administration, said Shea, a Catholic.

“What I’m doing on the committee is lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness,” said Shea, who has written a recent book on Christian persecution. “I don’t think it’s the optimum” way to deal with foreign policy failures, she said.

Making substantive policy recommendations “will all be up to the sub-group,” she said. Her book, “In the Lion’s Den,” was published under the Baptist Sunday School Board’s Broadman & Holman imprint.

The subcommittee on religious persecution will be co-chaired by Argue and Wilma Ellis, representing the Baha’is of the Americas. The committee’s next public meeting is scheduled for June.

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.

Before their appointment, only Argue, Henry and Shea among committee members had been outspoken in decrying Christian persecution. The committee 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.