NEWS ANALYSIS: RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION: Mission impossible? Religious persecution panel faces formidab

c. 1996 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ The mission of a new U.S. State Department committee sounds noble indeed: recommending policies to help religious believers around the world who suffer persecution because of their faith. But putting that plan into action, some religious leaders say, is fraught with huge challenges and potential pitfalls. On Nov. […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The mission of a new U.S. State Department committee sounds noble indeed: recommending policies to help religious believers around the world who suffer persecution because of their faith.

But putting that plan into action, some religious leaders say, is fraught with huge challenges and potential pitfalls.

On Nov. 12, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck outlined an ambitious agenda for the 20-member panel, which represents a broad spectrum of beliefs.

It included fostering dialogue between religious communities and the U.S. government; increasing the flow of information about the persecution of religious minorities, and providing information about U.S. efforts to address religious persecution.

While some religious leaders are praising the effort as a positive step forward, others are expressing cautious concerns. Still others are openly critical.

Formation of the panel comes after more than a year of discussions between Clinton administration officials, religious leaders and human rights advocates. In January, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) called on the U.S. government to take stronger measures on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world, including the appointment of a special presidential adviser for religious liberty.

In September, the Senate and the House of Representatives adopted resolutions urging the Clinton administration to deal with the issue of global religious persecution, particularly against Christians.

But the Clinton administration decided in favor of a broad-based committee approach _ a suggestion first floated last February by National Council of Churches (NCC) Associate General Secretary Albert Pennybacker, who testified to a congressional committee that it would be”premature to move quickly to the appointment”of a single adviser who reported directly to the president.

NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell, a member of the new Advisory Panel on Religious Freedom Abroad, praised the establishment of the diverse committee as a”positive step”for religious freedom. But to Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, the panel is”the classic bureaucratic gambit of when you want to duck a problem, you appoint a committee.” Horowitz said that while he believes the committee has”some wonderful members,”he is concerned that it will be staffed by State Department employees”whose careers are based on pleasing the State Department”and chaired by Shattuck, who Horowitz alleges is”out of the (administration’s) policy-making loop.” Over the past year, Horowitz, a Jew, has been one of the key leaders in a new movement to mobilize response to the persecution against Christians in places such as China, Vietnam, North Korea, Sudan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Horowitz believes a campaign on behalf of persecuted Christians should be modeled after American efforts to aid persecuted Soviet Jews.

He charged that a broad-based committee with a”fuzzy focus”is”patronizing”to the Christian community.”Nobody at the State Department would have even dreamed of trying to pull this off with the Jewish community in the comparable situation of Soviet anti-Semitism,”he said.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, noted the irony that the committee will operate out of the State Department, which he says”has been part of the problem, rather than the solution.” The problem, as Land sees it, is the government’s longstanding reluctance to address religious persecution of Christians and downright hostility to claims of religious bias. Land has testified before congressional hearings that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for instance, shows indifference to refugee claims of religious persecution in countries such as Iran and Sudan.

Such criticisms highlight the complex dynamics facing the committee. One committee member is Land’s former boss, the Rev. Jim Henry, immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In May, eight evangelical leaders including Land, Henry and NAE President Don Argue expressed concerns to President Clinton that”a large, diffuse advisory committee”would be”manifestly inadequate”to deal with the problems. However, both Henry and Argue are now committee members.

In an interview Thursday (Nov. 21), Argue said that the administration addressed most of his specific concerns by granting the committee a staff, funding, a two-year timetable and access to the president.”We wrote to the president asking him to do something, and he has responded,”Argue said.”If it doesn’t go the way we feel it should, there are ways to protest. But we trust we won’t have to.” NAE policy analyst Richard Cizik added:”Do we want to be a voice among many or do we want to control? We chose to have a voice, one among many, and to be focused upon doing what is right for everyone concerned.” Henry said in a statement that he was hopeful the committee”will visibly raise the attention of our government and public consciousness to the increasing persecution against Christians and other religious minorities in many places in the world.” But the amount of attention the committee will pay to the plight of persecuted Christians remains unclear. Horowitz, Land and others insist that Christians should be the prime focus.”It is Christian persecution which is the most widespread. It is persecution against Christians which is the most ignored around the world,”said Land.

Yet that makes other groups uncomfortable.”We’re still concerned that the raison d’etre for even forming this panel seemed to have an anti-Muslim thrust to it, so we’ll be watching it closely to see how it develops and what issues it takes on,”said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group here. “We have no problem fighting for religious freedom and religious tolerance, but we want to make sure that Muslims aren’t singled out as the ones in violation of these values when in fact, religious freedom is under threat throughout the world,”he said.

Hooper said his group is pleased that Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, leader of the nation’s largest African-American Muslim organization, and Laila Al-Marayati of the Muslim Women’s League were selected for the panel.

Cizik said the issue does not necessarily have to end in deadlock.”Quite frankly, if each member of the committee will focus on simple justice, they will be led to conclude that we must deal up front and early with the persecution of Christians,”he said.

Another contentious point for the committee will be balancing objectives. In his announcement, Shattuck repeatedly expressed hope that the committee will help the U.S. look for ways to”expand the role of (religious organizations) in peacemaking and reconciliation in places like Bosnia and the Middle East.” Critics charge this goal will take the committee too far away from the issue of persecution.”We are talking about murder, thuggery and persecution, and the State Department’s effort to broaden its focus to issues of interfaith dialogue _ important as that may be _ will blunt the force of our effort,”said Horowitz.

Committee member David Little, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said there does not have to be tension between those two tasks.”If you are looking at the reduction of religious persecution, you’re also attempting to create an environment where religious groups are respectedâÂ?¦ enabling them to fulfill their divine calling to make constructive contributions to their communities,”he said.

Little expects the committee will break into smaller sub-groups that will meet more frequently and address more specific topics within the panel’s overall mandate.

Like everything else in Washington, the religious persecution panel is not without its political implications.

Though Argue and Henry have criticized Clinton’s policies on abortion and other issues, other panel members have close relationships to the Clinton administration.

Campbell is a frequent White House visitor who led prayer meetings with Clinton during his budget battles with Congress. Al-Marayati, who was part of the U.S. delegation to Beijing for the 1995 United Nations women’s conference, is married to Salaam al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs in Los Angeles and a delegate to this year’s Democratic National Convention. Mohammed, who supported George Bush in 1992, this year switched his personal support to Clinton.

Diane Knippers, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, was among those who expressed concern about politicization of the panel when the administration first leaked news of the panel a few weeks before the election. “Whether or not this (committee) is a sincere initiative on the part of the administration or an election-season sop will be judged by what it actually accomplishes _ or is allowed to accomplish,”said Knippers.

Both the White House and the panelists are concerned about political appearances. Despite mounting pressure for action on behalf of persecuted Christians from Congress and elsewhere, the NAE urged the administration not to officially announce the committee until after the election _ advice that was followed. And a White House official, speaking on background, said the administration is very concerned that the committee not become”mired down in politics.” To avoid political quicksand, John Langlois, the Great Britain-based chairman of the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Religious Liberty Commission, urged committee members to voice an”unequivocal commitment”to internationally recognized principles of human rights and religious liberty, to adopt clear guidelines and procedures, and to commit to”taking prompt decisions and giving prompt advice”to government officials.”The worst of all worlds would be if the advisory committee were to be committed solely to theoretical concepts of justice without having a heart for the urgent distress of fellow human beings,”Langlois said.

Little said he believed committee members, while aware of the potential pitfalls, were committed to making it work.”I don’t think we would have lent our names if we thought the only outcome would be a lack of significant action,”he said.


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