A 'law of return' for Christians?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Most scholars have dismissed Samuel Huntington's warning that the Western Judeo-Christian civilization is entering upon a phase of confrontation with the Chinese and Islamic civilizations. The Congressional Human Rights Caucus appears, however, to have taken it seriously and introduced a bill that could get the "clash of civilizations" started.

H.R. 1685, co-sponsored by Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., would punish "Communist . . . [and] Islamic countries and regions" in which Christians are being persecuted. It also would overhaul the immigration laws to bring over Christians from "persecuted communities" the way Jews were brought in from behind the Iron Curtain.

The Wolf-Lantos bill targets countries in which the government persecutes Christians, called Category I persecution. It also takes aim at those where "the government fails to undertake serious and sustained efforts to eliminate" it, which it terms Category 2 persecution. Sanctions for both categories include stopping U.S. aid, using the U.N. Security Council and forums of "industrial democracies" to tighten a global economic squeeze, and other unspecified measures.

Christians from both types of countries would be allowed to migrate to America. A Sudanese Christian, for example, would get an immigrant visa if the United States labels Khartoum a persecutor of Christians. An Egyptian Copt would qualify if the Hosni Mubarak government is seen to have failed to "eliminate" Christian persecution. He doesn't have to have been persecuted himself to get the visa as long as his "community" is judged to have been.

The "Freedom From Religious Persecution" bill is the outcome of several meetings among lawmakers, researchers and Jewish and Christian activists. Some intellectuals of Cold War vintage support it ardently. At one recent workshop organized by a Washington-based Jewish organization, Christian activists were briefed on legislative and diplomatic strategies and tools that were effective in defending the rights of diaspora Jews and facilitating their immigration into the United States and Israel.

A haven for refugees

The Congressional Human Right Caucus is holding a series of briefings on the subject. In a May 20 letter inviting their colleagues to one of them, Mr. Lantos and Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., recalled that "the Jewish community has steadfastly taken responsibilities for fellow victims of discrimination," and called for "a coordinated response to Christian persecution abroad." Nina Shea of Freedom House complained that the United States was "founded as a haven for religious refugees," but "our government seems to have forgotten our origins as a nation."

Yet H.R. 1685 seems designed more as a tool for "civilizational," rather than religious, missions. Its concerns about Christians are confined to Communist and Muslim countries (except Burma, whose repressive policies have drawn U.S. attention). In some of those countries, the bill also alludes to the repression of other faith groups: Bahais in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists and animists and "moderate Muslims" in southern Sudan. But it doesn't bother about their fate elsewhere.

A confrontational penchant is apparent from the kind of Christian activism the caucus is encouraging. Kevin Turner of the Voice of the Martyrs, an American evangelical group, went into Sudan defying a Sudanese government travel ban and U.N. objections. He survived a government air raid, distributed Bibles, had a film on Jesus shown 28 times in various villages and administered vaccines. John Eibner, president of the Geneva-based Christian Solidarity International, made similar missions to Sudan, Egypt and other countries. Caucus members, hearing their accounts, applauded.

Representative Lantos' aide, Andrew Hale-Byrne, told me later that the caucus is determined to get rid of Sudan's Islamist government, which is committing "genocide" against Christians. "It has got to go," he repeated. Other offending countries mentioned in the bill include China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The insurgency in southern Sudan is as ethnic and racial as it is religious, and Khartoum's response has been brutal. Christians and many other minorities are indeed suffering repression and discrimination in many other Muslim and Communist autocracies. Yet these daring Christian missions, the political campaign surrounding them and the proposed law recall the colonial era, when Western missionaries would dash off to bastions of other faiths to preach the Gospel. Xenophobic natives would kill them, and soon colonial armies would spring to action to defend Christianity and incidentally occupy those countries.

Nobody is of course talking about colonization today, but there is little chance that sanctions or military action will help Christians in Sudan or Vietnam anymore than they have helped the Bahais in Iran or the Shiites in Iraq. Nor can Christian activists reconcile the two goals they say they want to accomplish: spreading Christianity in Communist and Muslim countries and bringing Christians to America.

The proposed immigration policy might somewhat reinforce America's Judeo-Christian cultural ethos, but that would compromise the First Amendment, which forbids the identification of the United States with any religious tradition. On the other hand, bringing large numbers of Christians "home" to America probably will seal the fate of Christianity in the Third World. Islamists around the world will celebrate it.

Throughout the Third World, Christian and other minorities are suffering repression that is essentially political and social. Islam is no more responsible for pockets of slavery in southern Sudan than Christianity was for slavery in America.

Political Islam thrives in an atmosphere of confusion and fear. The recent Iranian election shows -- as did recent elections in Jordan, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- that political Islam recedes in societies where Muslims have a chance to confront it and where democracy has a chance to take roots. Communism has been banished from its fatherland and will be undone, too, in its remaining holdouts as business and trade heighten people's demands for civic and political freedoms.

America can help democratic reforms in Communist, Muslim and other autocracies by engaging them in industry, trade and commerce, by using its colossal diplomatic weight and by disengaging from these activities when necessary. Democratic values are the only real antidote to the woes of Christians and other minorities in the Third World.

Mustafa Malik is an associate at The Strategy Group, an international strategic research entity.

Pub Date: 6/10/97

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