As 150,000 churches in 120 nations mobilized September 29 for a special prayer campaign on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world, the Clinton administration and Congress took new steps to re-examine U.S. policy responses to global religious persecution.
In September, administration officials confirmed that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has approved the establishment of an "advisory committee on religious freedom abroad" that will be staffed by the State Department's Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
State Department sources told CT the committee would study the issue of religious persecution broadly, as well as the role religion can play to inflame and resolve world conflicts, and then issue a report to both the President and the secretary of state.
Also in September, the Senate and the House of Representatives adopted separate but similar resolutions condemning the "egregious human rights abuses and denials of religious liberty to Christians around the world." Both nonbinding resolutions urged the President to "expand and invigorate United States international advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians."
The Senate resolution, passed unanimously September 17, encouraged the President to "proceed forward as expeditiously as possible" in appointing a White House special adviser on religious persecution. The House version, passed September 24, encouraged the President to "take organizational steps," including appointment of a special adviser or "the creation of a special advisory committee for religious liberty abroad which has an appropriate mandate and adequate staff."
In January, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) called on President Clinton to take specific steps to improve the administration's response to persecution, including appointment of "a knowledgeable, experienced, and compassionate special adviser" on religious liberty.
An administration official told Religion News Service that the administration believes strongly that an advisory committee "is a better mechanism to address these policy concerns and to raise the level of awareness on this issue than a single special adviser, because no single person could address the full range of issues around the plight of people of faith everywhere."
NAE President Don Argue told CT that the nae is concerned that the issue of the persecution of evangelicals in particular "is not passed off" or "watered down."
Nina Shea, director of the Puebla Program on Religious Freedom, and Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC), confirmed that they have accepted administration invitations to join the panel. Shea says she believes it is "absolutely essential" that the committee specifically address the issue of persecution against evangelicals and Catholics. "The State Department has traditionally been largely indifferent to this egregious human-rights problem, and if the committee does not address this fact, it will have failed in its purpose."
But Institute on Religion and Democracy President Diane Knippers says she is concerned that not all committee members share Shea's point of view. "Recently, NCC leaders have publicly minimized the scope of persecution of Christians worldwide and denied the very existence of Christian persecution in China," she says. "If this committee gives voice to members who have ideological commitments to denying the very problem of persecution, in the end it will do more harm than good."
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