While some members of Congress enjoy junkets to Paris or the Caribbean, Representatives Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Tony Hall (D-Ohio), and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) have chosen to visit political hot spots such as Sudan, Ethiopia, and Romania. The three are part of a small bipartisan congressional nucleus that has actively opposed religious persecution for more than a decade.
At a time when many religious-liberty advocates are calling for more effective U.S. government action for persecuted Christians, a small group of lawmakers has been successfully using different intervention methods.
Some believe high-profile press conferences and hearings work best. Others prefer a more diplomatic approach of letter-writing campaigns and raising specific cases. Some members have held high-level meetings with foreign leaders, urged U.S. embassies to investigate situations of repression, and lobbied the White House and State Department to address particular issues in bilateral discussions. Legislation, such as trade sanctions, also has been used to penalize nations that oppress religious believers.
Wolf says he became committed to the cause of religious freedom and human rights after visiting Romania with Hall and Smith during the heyday of communist oppression. They toured churches that had been bulldozed and met with pastors who had been imprisoned. Romanians kept passing them secret notes listing Christian prisoners and calling for help. In 1989, Wolf and Smith were the first Western leaders to visit the notorious Perm 35 Soviet labor camp. And in 1991, they witnessed prison laborers illegally manufacturing products for export in Beijing Prison Number 1.
Wolf says his inspiration comes from several biblical passages, including Ecclesiastes 4:1. "It says, 'I saw the tears of the oppressed, and they have no comforter.' I think it's our obligation," he asserts.
Since becoming chair of the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, Smith has conducted public hearings on religious persecution. His point of view on religious liberty was transformed 16 years ago after reading "Tortured for Christ," by Romanian evangelical pastor Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs.
"We need to be crusaders in solidarity with the oppressed rather than the oppressor," he says. "We can't be outside talking and clinking glasses with these dictatorships while our brothers and sisters in Christ are being tortured."
On the Senate side, Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has been leading religious liberty efforts for the past decade. "There is no human liberty more basic or essential than religious freedom," he says.
Another key player has been Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who believes "quiet diplomacy" is generally the most effective approach for aiding persecuted individual believers.
"If we are to maintain ties with these nations, as we need to do, publicly embarrassing them on any particular issue could damage our relationship and harm our interests in other areas," says Nunn, who is retiring this year. "At the same time, many governments are more likely to release Christian prisoners or repeal policies of religious intolerance if they can 'save face' and not be perceived as capitulating to a Western government."
Nunn says his decision to spend time and energy on the issue came from his convictions. "When various offices of the United States government are in a position to make a difference for persecuted believers around the world, we have a special obligation to do so," he says.
"In many ways, Jesus' admonition . . . that 'from everyone who has been given much shall be required' applies to entire nations as well as to individuals."
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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