Religious Persecution Drives Diplomacy Shift

But a White House effort to respond to the problem fails to satisfy Christian groups - and some US lawmakers

Persecution of religious minorities overseas is a budding moral and foreign policy problem for the Clinton administration.

As a State Department report this week indicates, the problem is due mainly to an ongoing crackdown in places like China and Sudan on a group the White House can't easily ignore - Christians.

But the report is proving to be controversial for its focus on the persecution of a single faith. The approach seems heavy-handed to many State Department officials, who argue that effective human rights work can't be done abroad if it appears to local governments that fickle US domestic politics are forcing the change in focus.

"My impression is that it was necessary to do this - once," says one highly placed State Department source. "Given the climate on the Hill, we needed to respond. ... But if this becomes a yearly thing, it is going to be counterproductive. It will make it harder to do human rights work, and it won't help Christians, or anyone else."

The report, which touched on several religious groups but specifically addressed the persecution of Christians in 78 countries, showed that Chinese believers continue to be systematically arrested in a widespread campaign stemming from a central policy directive in Beijing last year.

It also urged Russia's President Boris Yeltsin to veto a law that would severely restrict minority religious worship. Mr. Yeltsin did veto the law just before the report's release

Religious persecution abroad is also a touchy political issue at home for President Clinton - mainly because of an effective lobby of conservative Christians and Jews who have the ear of an increasing number of US lawmakers. They criticize what they see as a White House policy of indifference toward religious minorities overseas, including Christians.

Human rights groups grumbled loudly during the president's first term, saying the White House neglected human rights issues. Critics also say the culture of the State Department itself has long been typified as elite and secular, and not especially sympathetic to issues of faith. Foreign service officers abroad are known often to feel more empathy with local officials than with, say, evangelicals, whom they sometimes warn against using an aggressive proselytizing style.

But the State Department and the White House are being nudged down a different path by a new Washington lobby. Made up of a loose coalition of figures, including Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, it is trying to awaken a broader group of religious Americans to abuses abroad - in a way not seen since the campaign in the late '70s to stop the persecution of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

"You have to start somewhere, and there's a real constituency here for Christians," says a staffer for one House Republican who works on the issue. "The persecution of Christians is something people relate to. I know a lot of Americans haven't cared much about human rights and overseas issues. But as they begin to wake up to abuses of people they can relate to, they will also begin to care about other people that are persecuted."

For conservative lawmakers involved in the issue, the interest is more than just good constituent politics. Their concern is based on a conviction that persecution of minority religions is on the rise in the post-cold-war world - whether of Muslims in Bosnia, the Baha'i in Iran, or Coptic Christians in Egypt.

IN response, the Clinton administration, whose foreign policy has emphasized trade and economic expansion, has recently been articulating new human rights standards, instructing US diplomats to press the issue harder abroad.

In an introduction to the report, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright states: "We have changed the way the State Department looks at religious questions.... We have asked our embassies to provide more ... reporting on religious issues."

Pressure brought by the coalition is largely credited with prompting the White House last year to appoint a special 20-member State Department advisory panel on religious freedom. That panel is expected to make its first policy recommendations by December.

"This new report demonstrates that the Clinton administration is concerned with [religious persecution] and is doing something about it," says David Little of the US Institute for Peace, a member of the advisory panel. "There's an articulation of principles we haven't seen before - asking that people not be punished for religious beliefs or affiliations."

For Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania and Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia, however, the administration's efforts are too little, too late. This fall, the two expect to push a bill to create an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring in the White House. The controversial measure would give the office unprecedented powers to request an end to US aid for countries that are judged to systematically abuse religious minorities or to tolerate such abuse.

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