Christian Persecution

It's possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year's going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle -- about $400. A boy might cost 10 head. An exiled leader in Sudan's Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in Sudan -- more than Bosnia, Chechnya and Haiti combined.

"Sudan is characterized by the total or near complete absence of civil liberties," said activist Nina Shea, during recent Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearings. "Individual Christians, including clergy, have over the past few years ... been assassinated, imprisoned, tortured and flogged for their faith."

The Sudan report went on and the leader of Freedom House's Puebla program on religious freedom already had described horror stories from China, Vietnam, North Korea and Pakistan. She still had to cover Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Islamic world.

Americans are not seeing news reports about these tragedies or hearing preachers and politicians make urgent appeals for action. But that may change soon. An coalition of human rights activists and religious leaders -- most of them evangelicals or, like Shea, Roman Catholics -- is working overtime to yank this issue into daylight before the November elections.

Events at home and overseas may help. Last weekend, the South China Morning Post reported signs that a brutal crackdown was beginning on underground churches in northwest China. A day later, President Clinton announced that he will renew China's most- favored-nation trading status with the United States.

Millions of Americans can expect to hear these two issues linked on Sept. 29, when leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) will urge member churches to observe "Persecution Sunday." Efforts are underway to encourage Catholic programs at that time.

"The pope has been a great leader on issues of religious freedom -- it has been one of the hallmarks of his papacy," said Shea. "We can expect him to hear him speak out on this issue again. ... The issue is why the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has been quiet."

Meanwhile, most of America's Powers That Be in government, media and religion have looked the other way while Christians have become one of the modern world's most persecuted minorities, said Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who has worked frantically behind the scenes on this issue. His passion has led him to take a stance that angers many other Jews -- declaring that evangelicals, and to some extent Catholics, may become in the 21st century what Jews were in the 20th century.

"Christians -- especially evangelicals -- make great demons," said Horowitz. "Most people think of evangelicals as odd or a even threatening. Obviously, they stand out in Communist and radical Islamic cultures and they're not the kind of people you can buy off with money and raw power, which are the stock in trade of thug regimes. ... Meanwhile, our own political and media elites maintain a kind of quiet, sneering indifference, if not hostility, toward evangelicals. ...

"But more and more Christians are getting tortured and killed for their faith. That's the truth. I'll be damned if I'm going to sit through another holocaust. Absolutely not. One was enough."

In January, the NAE released a blunt statement calling for specific U.S. government actions -- beginning with President Clinton speaking out on persecution and ending with economic repercussions for offending regimes. One bitter complaint: State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials often shun persecuted Christians.

Behind the scenes, talks continue with politicos working with Clinton and challenger Bob Dole. In March, Clinton ducked out of a commitment to speak at the NAE's convention.

"This is a chance for Clinton to reach out to some of his fiercest critics," said Horowitz. "But it's also a can't miss opportunity for Bob Dole. What's to lose? We'll have to see who seizes this issue first."