Faith? An issue of human rights?

WASHINGTON -- The reports pour in via a handful of understaffed and overlooked religion news services that have sprung up on the Internet.

In Pakistan, two Christians were jailed after they clashed with a vendor who refused to serve them ice cream in the same bowls offered to Muslims.

"I do not have any bowls for Christians," he said, according to the Compass Direct news service. The brothers were accused of attacking Islam, under a statute that, if read literally, calls for execution. Their families fled into hiding. Supporters -- including some Muslims -- are trying to find them a lawyer willing to take the case.

In Iran, the fate of 13 jailed Jews remains unclear. In Russia, an extremist stabbed a leading rabbi. In China, the battered and lifeless body of Father Yan Weiping was found in a Beijing street, hours after the underground Catholic priest was arrested during an illegal Mass. In Tibet, the United Nations-sponsored World Bank is helping the Chinese government move more people into territory seized from Buddhists.

Then there are the Catholics in India and the secret missionaries in North Korea and the terrified evangelicals in Saudi Arabia and, in the Egyptian town called El-Kosheh, hundreds of Coptic believers continue to insist that they were placed under false arrest and tortured by police.

The inaugural meeting of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was held shortly before a recent summit between President Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Before moving on to housekeeping issues -- finding office space, naming a staff -- the nine-member commission quickly produced statements on the scandal in Iran and Egypt.

"The Coptic community is finding it increasingly difficult to practice its faith freely," said the commission. "If the situation of Coptic Christians is raised with him President Mubarak will understand how strongly millions of Americans care about these reported human rights violations and about the future of the largest Christian community in the Middle East."

The problem, of course, is that Egypt is financially and strategically tied to the United States. Mubarak also faces tensions at home between competing Islamic factions. And religious freedom remains such a messy issue, the kind that sophisticated diplomats and business leaders prefer to avoid.

"You still have people in the bureaucracies saying, 'That's really a RELIGIOUS issue, not a HUMAN RIGHTS issue, and if we raise it, that could make people get testy,' " said Catholic activist Nina Shea of Freedom House, a commission member. "Some people even say that treating religious freedom as a human rights issue will violate the separation of church and state."

Nevertheless, the commission has staked out a three-part agenda for its early work: focusing on documented cases in China and Sudan; investigating new reports from settings such as Pakistan, India and Russia; and preparing materials to educate U.S. diplomats about the realities of religious persecution.

But the commission, said Shea, also faces another challenge -- investigating the current status of U.S. policies in this area, agency by agency and nation by nation.

"Let's take Sudan," she said. "If what is taking place there is truly genocide, and, at Freedom House, we're convinced that it is, then surely dealing with the reality of genocide would affect U.S. policy. Right?"

While the commission cannot ignore "geopolitical realities," its chairman stressed that it will do everything it can to convince government officials, the media and the public that religious persecution is, in fact, a human rights issue.

Clearly, many nations do not share America's commitment to religious liberty, said Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. In some nations, there are ties that bind the ruling party or regime to a specific faith. At this point, members of religious minorities can be seen as dangerous rebels, enemies of the state or foreign agents who are attacking the culture's traditional values.

But this kind of conflict occurs whenever people from different cultures discuss human rights, said the chairman of the commission. One person's religious liberty is another person's Western cultural imperialism.

"Religious freedom is an essential human right, a matter of freedom of conscience," said Saperstein. "We, hopefully, will be able to convince the world that we are right on this issue."