Persecution? What Persecution?

The dominoes began falling when Haik Hovsepian-Mehr dared to start a global campaign to save a fellow Iranian pastor.

Mahedi Dibaj was on death row in 1994, charged with apostasy for converting from Islam to Christianity. He was released, to the joyful surprise of Iran's tiny Protestant community.

Then Hovsepian-Mehr was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. Then Dibaj disappeared. Then Tateos Machaellian, who followed Hovsepian- Mehr as leader of Iran's Protestants, was murdered. Police said they had discovered Dibaj's body while hunting Machaellian's killers. These crimes remain unsolved. Since then, 20 Christian leaders from Iran have fled for their lives. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has denied their pleas for asylum.

"This is just one tragic example of what's going on," said Faith McDonnell of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy. "There are many other cases just as bad."

The falling dominoes in Iran, China, Kuwait, Sudan and elsewhere officially reached Washington, D.C., during the past two weeks. After months of lobbying, religious conservatives and human- rights activists convinced Congress to call for action -- including the appointment of a White House specialist and a thorough review of all U.S. policies affecting "persecuted Christians."

A Sept. 17 Senate resolution noted: "In the past, the United States has used its international leadership to vigorously take up the cause of other persecuted religious minorities. Unfortunately, the United States has in many instances failed to raise forcefully the issue of anti-Christian persecution."

The House resolution this week said more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined. In one blast of politically sensitive text, it noted that China's Communist leaders have called underground Evangelical and Catholic congregations "a principal threat to political stability."

Meanwhile, the White House braced for criticism during this Sunday's "International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church" in thousands of churches linked to the Worldwide Evangelical Fellowship. Earlier this week, the administration began circulating its plans to heed the advice of more liberal religious groups and appoint a study commission linked to the State Department, instead of taking more confrontational actions.

"From day one, the White House position has been that this isn't really about the persecution of Christians," said Nina Shea of Freedom House, who has verbally agreed to serve on the new commission. She was, at mid-week, awaiting written confirmation of the panel's existence and details of its mandate.

White House officials, said Shea, are "especially interested in what they call the positive uses of religion, like finding ways for religious groups to work together. ... That's fine, but it would be tragic if issues of religious persecution turn into one item on some commission's long list."

The political and theological lines in this debate can be seen in this weekend's first annual "Persecution Sunday" activities. Supporters include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the National Association of Evangelicals and a host of Episcopal, United Methodist, Lutheran and other oldline Protestant groups that have rebelled against their hierarchies by taking conservative stands on moral and social issues.

Meanwhile, National Council of Churches leaders say persecution reports are being overstated. The council's Asian specialist, for example, told a religious news agency that he "would definitely not use the word `persecution'" to describe recent events in China.

Another NCC official, Albert Pennybacker, opposed the naming of a special presidential advisor and called for a commission on global religious issues. He told a House subcommittee: "What may appear as `persecution' and indeed resistance may in fact be the wish to preserve authentic religious and cultural traditions. ... If it is true that the persecution of believers of all faiths is pervasive, it is rightly a cause for deep concern and lament."

This stance stuns McDonnell and other conservatives.

"`If'? `If' there is persecution of believers?", she said, sarcastically. "We don't need some kind of Howdy-Doody commission to know that Christians are dying for their faith. It's time for action, not more politically correct talk."