The curious paradox of religious persecution

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The persecution of Christians around the world finally got some attention the other day when a "Freedom From Religious Persecution Act" was introduced in the Senate by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is Jewish, and in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who is an evangelical Christian.

The man responsible for drafting the legislation, Michael Horowitz, is also Jewish, and a former top Reagan-administration official. Columnist A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times, who is Jewish, is a strong supporter.


I am somewhat bothered by this 40-page bill.

The legislation creates an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring in the White House. Its director would issue annual reports assessing whether persecution exists in one of two categories: (1) ongoing and widespread persecution that includes rape, imprisonment, abduction, torture, enslavement or forced mass resettlement, whether such persecution is done by a government or with a government's support; (2) religious persecution not carried out with government support, but when government fails to take serious and sustained efforts to eliminate it.


The director could recommend to the president immediate sanctions to ban all exports to foreign governments and cut off virtually all foreign aid. Further sanctions could be applied after a waiting period. Asylum for persecuted religious minorities could also be granted.

Documenting persecution

The latest documentation of Christian persecution is contained in two books, "Their Blood Cries Out" by Paul Marshall (Word Books), of the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, and "The Lion's Den" by Nina Shea (Broadman Holman), based on eyewitness accounts of torture and martyrdom.

There is no question of widespread persecution of Christians, especially in Sudan, whence comes numerous reports of people being kidnapped, jailed, tortured and even murdered for their beliefs. But the actual number who die for their faith is unknown. Some have claimed that as many as 160,000 Christians are murdered for their faith every year; other experts have criticized this figure as misleading because it includes deaths from other and unknown causes.

While the current bill is better than an earlier draft, it still suffers from a one-size-fits-all approach. The Islamic governments who persecute Christians do so for religious reasons. It is unlikely they all will back down in the face of economic sanctions. Those with large oil reserves are unlikely to feel much pressure from an America dependent on their wells. China, one of the major offenders, will escape tariff penalties. President Clinton and most of Congress want to continue most-favored-nation trade status with China.

The Specter-Wolf bill provides for no sophisticated, step-by-step approach during which pressure would be slowly increased on the persecutors. It's all punishment. No country is given incentives to listen to America's complaints.

Though well-intended, the asylum provision might have a curious effect. Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Christian church has grown and prospered under persecution. Consider the loss of popular clout among American churches, which have collectively grown fat and lazy because of their preoccupation with agendas centered on prosperity and politics. For Americans, persecution occurs when the sermon runs past noon or a journalist calls Christians names.

A Sudanese Christian might think Americans have it easy when their lashings come by way of the tongue, while his come from whip or gun. Would the expansion of the Christian faith be helped or hindered by allowing fledgling churches to flee persecution and come to America where a prosperity gospel and compromise often eclipses the way of the cross?


That's not a justification for governments to do nothing. It is a call for Christian people to give more support to their brethren. The example of the Jewish people's unity during their times of persecution might be a good model to follow.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/26/97