Slavery, faith & the marketplace

Two years ago, Christians were sold as slaves for as little as $15 in Southern Sudan.

This statement is no longer accurate, but not because the Khartoum regime has stopped trying to bomb, massacre, starve, rape, torture and kidnap Christians, animists and even other Muslims into submission. No, fluctuations in currency rates have simply raised the price to $50 or $75.

"When we go in to buy people's freedom, we budget $100 per slave to pay for the whole operation, which includes transportation into places where the regime doesn't want us to go," said Jesse Sage of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group. "But here's the most sobering reality: you can still trade one human being for three cows, or the other way around."

All of this is taking place far from most pews and news cameras. Thus, two years ago, an interfaith coalition organized the first International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. This Sunday, worshippers in about 100,000 churches - from Southern Baptists to Catholics, from Pentecostals to the Orthodox - will pray for those who are living and dying as martyrs.

These prayers are one expression of a wider movement against all religious persecution, which led to the recent passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. President Clinton signed the bill into law on Oct. 27.

In the words of former New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, the term "persecution" means: "Blood, fetters, death, wherever, and to whatever religious minorities -- in the Iran of the ayatollahs, in the China of the Communist Politburo where Catholics and Protestants who wish to worship as their faith dictates have to risk their freedom and worship underground, in Pakistan where Christians by the scores have been imprisoned for 'blasphemy' against Islam, in Tibet where pictures of the Dalai Lama are displayed only on pain of prison, or in the Sudan where Christians and members of ancient African faiths are massacred by the Islamist Government."

The act creates a Commission on International Religious Freedom -- with three members appointed by the president, two by the Speaker of the House, two by the Senate majority leader and one each by the House and Senate minority leaders. It will have its own budget, the power to "take testimony and receive evidence" and must publicly release at least one annual report of its findings. The White House and what Rosenthal has called the "trade-uber-alles lobbies" fiercely opposed the bill and defeated efforts to impose economic sanctions.

"Protectors of the status quo have been able to keep the facts buried," said Jewish activist Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute. "They've been able to cast doubt on whether religious persecution is real. We won that battle, because this new commission can put facts on the record. What we weren't able to do was get the same kind of sanctions and policies focused on thug regimes -- like Sudan -- that were aimed at the apartheid regime in South Africa."

Prayers and facts will remain the primary weapons in the fight against persecution. However, many religious schools have begun collecting funds, literally, to purchase the freedom of slaves. This past weekend, about 250 students from 60 colleges gathered at Georgetown University for a conference organized by Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.

The keynote speaker was Baroness Caroline Cox, a British nurse who now serves as deputy speaker in the House of Lords. She has led numerous teams of doctors and journalists into Southern Sudan. She recently interviewed a Catholic leader who survived a raid on the village of Mayen Abun. Many where slaughtered, including his brother, and his sister was one of those taken as a slave. Santino Ring's words were haunting: "We're trying to hold a frontline of Christianity here, but we feel completely forgotten. Doesn't the church want us anymore?"

"That's what our persecuted brothers and sisters feel," said Cox. "They have no evidence the church wants them at all. All of us who've worked with the persecuted church come back humbled, inspired, enriched, beyond anything we can describe. If the day comes that they become martyrs, we must celebrate their martyrdom. But we must make sure it's not in vain, because that martyrdom is for our faith."