It's working! In response to the National Association of Evangelicals' January 1996 Statement of Conscience, the Clinton administration appointed a panel of 20 religious leaders charged with "increasing the flow of information to the U.S. government concerning the conditions of religious minorities facing persecution around the world." That committee is having its effect.
When the panel was named in November 1996, many had deep doubts about its potential since the White House had slipped from a back-channel commitment to appoint a special adviser to the President on persecution of Christians to the appointment of a multifaith panel charged with monitoring religious persecution. The lines of authority had shifted from the White House (which had shown concern about persecution) to the State Department (which had seemed deaf to the problem). Besides, the appointees included a representative of the National Council of Churches, which had in the past refused to recognize persecution in China.
Frankly, the proposed committee looked like a media-relations effort to co-opt the issue rather than an empowered task force to address a crisis. But after evangelical and Catholic activists evaluated key factors (such as budget, staff, timetable, and lines of reporting), they took the risk.
One of the first cases the committee dealt with has now been favorably resolved. Last February, on the first day the committee met, NAE President Don Argue, a member of the committee, presented a brief to the State Department on the plight of Bob and Heidi Fu, house-church leaders who had fled mainland China for Hong Kong, but were trapped there as Chinese rule over the British colony approached. Apparently the U.S. consulate general there was giving political dissidents immigration priority over religious refugees. The Fus' escape (CT, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 70) can largely be credited to the new awareness of religious oppression the committee has brought to the State Department.
This success represents a new approach. According to Argue, the committee's efforts have resulted in a formal State Department protocol designed to give priority to credible, documented cases of religious persecution. When a case is brought to the department's attention, it will contact the consulate or embassy in the country concerned. Of course, diplomatic wheels grind slowly, and foreign service personnel, perhaps unaware of religious persecution in their bailiwick, may take a while to act. This protocol does not guarantee that a foreign government will stop persecution or that the U.S. will accord someone refugee status. "We cannot perform magic," says Argue, "but at least we have a clear protocol and are seeing some results."
Another success is a July report on religious persecution in 78 countries (CT, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 74). Previous State Department reports on human-rights violations have tended to minimize the seriousness of violations by America's historic allies and key trading partners. This 83-page report, however, warns of oppression of Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists in Western European democracies and devotes much space to detailing China's crackdown on unauthorized religious groups. In response, the Clinton administration is pointing out how awareness of religious persecution has already been shaping U.S. foreign policy in such places as Pakistan and the former Burma. Let us pray that this heightened awareness brings U.S. foreign policy even more into line with our democratic commitments.
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