Preaching to the Anti-Persecution Choir

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sen. Arlen Specter was preaching to the choir and he knew it.

As the veteran Pennsylvania senator studied the crowd, he tried to spot the journalists sprinkled among the clergy, social activists and politicos jammed into the U.S. Senate's Mansfield conference room.

"I have been in this room many times," he said, at this week's press conference introducing the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997. "I have never seen such a disproportionate imbalance between the number of the distinguished people on the podium and the number of cameras."

The bill would require increased U.S. efforts against religious persecution, with special emphasis on attacks on Christians, Buddhists in Tibet and Baha'is in Iran. Sponsored by Specter, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia and a bipartisan coalition, it would create a White House office monitoring persecution and authorize sanctions against offending nations, echoing earlier efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews and blacks in South Africa.

The long line of speakers backing the legislation ranged from Religious Right strategists to nationally known rabbis. Quiet, but intense, testimonies were offered by an associate of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Roman Catholic bishop of the southern Sudan, where Christians have been sold into slavery and, in some cases, crucified.

One after another, they addressed a handful of reporters - trying to find the right mixture of horror stories and appeals to shared moral values. Christians made it clear that they recognize that there is more to the persecution issue than bloody crackdowns on churches in China, North Korea and in countries led by militant Islamic regimes. Jews went out of their way to stress that it is no longer possible to deny that Christians are being tortured and killed for their faith.

The result was a series of political and religious role reversals. "We believe that human and civil rights and religious freedom and liberty should be at the center of our foreign policy," said one speaker. "We believe that if the United States makes the center of its foreign policy profits, rather than people, and money, rather than human rights, then we will have lost our soul as a nation."

This blast of global idealism didn't come from a World Council of Churches official, a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops staff member or a moderate Baptist with ties to the Jimmy Carter era. No, it came from Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition. He also stressed that this issue is "far more important than eliminating the deficit, far more important than lowering taxes."

Progressives face wrenching debates, as well. Many have hesitated to back this cause because so many of today's persecution reports center on evangelicals and Catholics. Often, those persecuted are not the polite believers who worship quietly in state-sanctioned pews, but those who aggressively - or even obnoxiously - proclaim their faith to their neighbors and in the public square. Another speaker alluded to these tensions.

"When God's children are denied their basic human rights because of their efforts ... to reach out to God, then America must speak out," he said. "When God's children are in prison for praying, America must speak out. When God's children are put to death for proselytizing, then America must speak out."

This defense of evangelism didn't come from a charismatic televangelist, a National Association of Evangelicals executive or a Southern Baptist missionary. No, it came from Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism - a body of liberal believers that frequently clashes with evangelicals.

The bottom line: this issue may be too complex to fit into a convenient news niche. It threatens the economic interests of many powerful nations, corporations and lobby groups. But religious persecution must not remain hidden in the shadows, said Wolf.

"We cannot be silent any longer," he said. "When we come to the defense of the 'least of these,' ... we raise the comfort level for all who are persecuted by dictators. When we speak for Christians, we also speak for Muslims. When we speak for Jews, we also speak for Baha'is. We are speaking for all."