In North Korea, Christians meet secretly or else they suffer imprisonment. In northern Nigeria, some Christians have been subjected to Islamic Shari'ah law, which punishes violators with amputation, floggings, and stoning. In countries all over the world, men and women of all manner of religions are victimized because of what they believe. What exactly should we do about it?

Among human-rights advocates, two strikingly divergent opinions have emerged. One side is represented by Robert Seiple, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. In October 2002 he wrote an essay for

Among other things, he contrasted the approaches of the U.S. State Department and that of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: "One is based on quiet diplomacy; the other, public finger pointing. One works with governments; the other castigates governments from afar. One lights candles, if you will, and the other feels obligated to curse the darkness."

As for himself, Seiple concludes, "I have never been comfortable with the 'punishing' approach. While it may appeal to our public machismo at home, it rarely moves the ball forward abroad. Sanctions, especially unilateral sanctions, have a checkered career at best, sometimes creating a negative blowback on those we are attempting to help."

After some key leaders took exception to Seiple's views, Christianity Today invited two longtime religious-rights advocates to make their cases.

This article, written by Michael Horowitz, is the debate's first essay. Also read T. Jeremy Gunn's piece.

Lives are at stake. Remarkably, Robert Seiple argues that the world's persecuted believers, most of whom are Christians, can best be helped through "quiet diplomacy" managed by the State Department.

He contrasts this approach with the public anti-persecution campaigns of such leaders as Chuck Colson, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Center for Religious Freedom Director Nina Shea, and the late Steve Snyder—campaigns that helped pass the International Religious Freedom Act.

This act educated a previously unknowing and indifferent America about the hundreds of millions of believers who, in the words of the act, are victims or at risk of "abduction, enslavement, killing, imprisonment, forced mass relocation, rape, crucifixion, or other forms of torture." Seiple analogizes his approach to "lighting candles," and charges the anti-persecution movement with such self-indulgent sins as "curs[ing] the darkness," "hurl[ing] grenades from afar," "tak[ing] … perverse … pleasure in" naming persecuting regimes, and "appeal[ing] to public machismo" but "rarely mov[ing] the ball forward."

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There are important lessons to be learned from Seiple's views and the record of the Clinton State Department, which he served as its Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, an advisory position created by the Religious Freedom Act.

First is a lesson I know as a Jew—that silence doesn't work with tyrants. At root, Seiple's preferred "government-to-government" and "quiet diplomacy" approach erroneously assumes that persecuting regimes have greater power and permanency than they actually possess. It fails to understand the fragile and vulnerable character of such regimes, and it dispirits their internal opponents and crushes their victims' spirits. While engagement with persecuting regimes must often be abided as a tactical expedient, doing so on a routine basis causes their character and conduct to be masked over time, and in the process empowers and legitimizes them.

I vividly remember from my service in the Reagan administration the fear and apoplexy of senior State Department officials when President Reagan delivered his "Evil Empire" speech about the Soviet Union. (Not by accident, the speech was delivered at the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals.) State Department critics of the speech labeled its truth-telling premise (and the audience before whom it was delivered) with the same "cowboy" and "machismo" pejoratives with which Seiple labels those who have raised the religious persecution issue to its current place on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Yet as we know authoritatively from senior officials of the former Soviet Union, Reagan's truth-telling was a decisive means by which the regime was brought down.

Likewise, President Bush's "Axis of Evil" designation of North Korea—viewed with equal horror by "engagement" enthusiasts like Seiple—has placed in the dock, for the first time in years, a Stalinist regime that treats possession of Bibles as a criminal offense meriting life (and as frequently death) sentences in gulags of unrivaled savagery. The regime's blustering response to the President, while raising understandable fears of a U.S.-North Korea confrontation, is in fact a clear sign of its desperation, clear evidence that it knows that the spotlight shined by the President on its conduct ensures that its days are numbered.

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Seiple's professed discomfort with what he calls a "punishing approach" toward tyrannies is also belied by the success of the movement on which the Religious Freedom Act was modeled—the campaign against Soviet anti-Semitism of the '60s and '70s led by Sen. Henry Jackson. U.S. Jewish and Christian leaders energized that campaign.

The movement visited real "punishment" against a Soviet Union with far greater capacity to impose reciprocal punishments on the United States than countries like Sudan and North Korea ever will have. Its signature feature, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, banned trade and other forms of normalization with the former Soviet Union as long as it forbade Jewish dissidents to emigrate from its borders. That demand jeopardized the Soviet regime's core internal security policy of walling its subjects in.

Yet, in dramatic refutation of the punishments-don't-work claim, a seemingly all-powerful Soviet Union let my people go, and Sen. Jackson's faith in the efficacy of speaking truth to power was proven correct. Moreover, the freedom given to the Soviet Union's vulnerable Jewish community also caused cracks to develop in walls the regime had built around artists, political dissidents, and Christians.

In light of that history, it seems strange for Seiple to regard the Religious Freedom Act's requirement to suspend U.S. aid (and only non-humanitarian aid at that) to persecuting regimes as a "punishing" and inevitably counterproductive policy. Under the Act, the President may even waive the suspension of aid.

Seiple's views track the Clinton administration's National Security Advisor Sandy Berger's "fundamental concern" with the key premises of the Religious Freedom Act and the movement that brought it into being. According to Berger, "automatic and public censure" of persecuting regimes will:

"Strengthen the hands of extremists seeking to incite intolerance, and could result in greater pressures—and even reprisals—against minority religious communities. … Moreover, the more the United States is perceived as making unilateral, peremptory judgments on the performance of other countries, the less we will be able to work with those countries—including on issues of religious freedom."

Zero Tolerance

Seiple's admonitions to "understand … the context of" regimes involved in religious persecution also track the views of former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Dealing with a statute concerning "widespread and ongoing" acts of hard-core persecution, Secretary Albright said this:

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"Even the most patriotic among us must admit that neither morality, nor religious freedom, nor respect for human rights were invented here—nor are they perfectly practiced here.

"It is in our interest, and it is essential to our own identity, for America to promote religious freedom and human rights. But if we are to be effective in defending the values we cherish, we must also take into account the perspectives and values of others."

Former New York Times Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal took on the Albright speech in a manner that made clear why President Bush rightly awarded him this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

He asked: "What 'perspectives and values' must we take into account about religious persecution—the value of arrest, torture, forced labor, the perspective of the Communist bureaucrats and police who oversee the 'patriotic' churches where Chinese Catholics and Protestants must worship if they want to stay out of prison?

"Or the perspectives of governments that do not permit Christians to worship openly at all, as in Saudi Arabia, or make war against them, spelled Sudan?"

Seiple's passive and risk-averse approach to dealing with hard-core religious persecutors bears potentially tragic consequences not only for today's victimized lambs but also for the very character of the modern world. This is so because vulnerable believers in general, and Christian communities in radical Muslim and remnant Communist countries in horrific particular, have become primary scapegoats. Malevolent regimes use persecution to frighten entire populations into submission.

The reality is this: the well-being of Christian communities in the developing world now increasingly signals and determines whether entire populations and cultures remain in the dark ages or enter a world of modernity, tolerance, and—a particular contribution of Judeo-Christian culture—democracy.

The hopes of hundreds of millions of Muslims in Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere, and the freedom of billions of ordinary people in China, North Korea, and Laos, significantly depend upon America's support for the religiously persecuted in those countries—and Christians' vigorous identification with their brothers and sisters in faith.

It is thus imperative to insist on a zero-tolerance policy toward religious persecution. We must never allow the fates of persecution's victims to become bargaining chips in "government-to-government" negotiations—if only because such conduct profoundly undermines the freedoms of all, believers and nonbelievers alike.

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Ineffective Friend

Scholar David Forte nicely described this vision in Congressional testimony supporting the passage of the Religious Freedom Act. Regarding the need to publicly protect Christians in radical Muslim countries, Forte wrote of the harmful character of U.S. policies then in effect:

Today, a modern version of Kharijite heresy stalks Islam. It has gained the reins of power in Iran and Sudan. It threatens Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, even Saudi Arabia. It cows a timid government in Pakistan to accede to its program. It persecutes minorities, particularly Christians. But its real objective is to steal the soul of Islam, to change [its] tradition of art, culture, learning, and toleration into its own image of rigid and tyrannical power.
American foreign policy has been an ineffective friend, if friend at all, to these persecuted Christians and other religious minorities. By not using our substantial influence to let our allies know that these kinds of laws are against international law, that they offend the basic sense of decency of the American people, and that these actions will affect their relations with us, the United States State Department sends the following messages:
(1) We don't believe in protecting those religious adherents of the West; we must be the materialist bankrupt culture the Islamic radicals claim we are.
(2) Radical Islam is a legitimate force in the world, and it is all right with us if, for reasons of state, Islamic governments give in to the radicals' tyrannical agenda.
(3) We treat our Islamic friends with patronizing indifference. After all, we in effect say, this isn't a human-rights problem. This is a Muslim problem, and we all know how these people behave.
Our inaction helps create regimes and forces whose ultimate aim is to destroy the West and the great tradition of Islam as well.

It is clear that the 21st century will be characterized by the renaissance of religious faith as an increasingly central organizing premise for societies. This renaissance rejects the premises of "God is dead" and "the Christian God is no longer tenable" that Nietzsche so chillingly and accurately predicted would shape the 20th century.

As such, it is vital for America to be on the right side of history by speaking up vigorously for persecuted religious minorities. Such an effort will mirror the benefits and effects of an earlier, similar undertaking, largely spurred by Christian witness, that caused Great Britain and the United States to gain moral and political influence by taking on the scourge of African chattel slavery.

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To be sure, persons always conscious of risks and always counseling caution will at times be right in alleging that public campaigns against persecuting regimes will at times overstep, will cause some episodes of short-term backlash. But this is only to say that all parties to the debate over anti-persecution policies, if they are at all decent, need to anguish over the certain knowledge that their missteps can cost lives they seek to protect.

But all must also understand, as Seiple routinely fails to do, that persons favoring "quiet diplomacy" strategies must bear the moral burden of, and responsibility for, the victimized believers who suffer and die on their watch. They must acknowledge that silence and passivity cause lost opportunities for progress no less fatal to victimized believers than those allegedly caused by unduly aggressive dealings with tyrants. They must acknowledge that profound historic outcomes are seldom achieved by quiet negotiations between diplomatic bureaucrats. And, finally, they must acknowledge that religious persecutions had grown—and grown exponentially—during the pre-Religious Freedom Act days when the strategies to which Bob Seiple would have us return were the norm.

The Second Statement of Conscience Concerning Worldwide Religious Persecution, issued in May 2002 by the National Association of Evangelicals, understands this. It rightly notes that the anti-persecution movement had, "by the grace of God and through the committed efforts and prayers of Americans of all faiths, joined by many who profess no religious faith … [changed matters] dramatically during the past few years."

It then lists such accomplishments as the present-day "grassroots prairie fire of concern for persecuted believers" and that "national media coverage of religious persecution, once rare in the extreme, is now increasingly attentive and less skeptical of the just claims of faith-based victims."

In contrast to Seiple's view that the Religious Freedom Act was "conceived in error [and] delivered in chaos," the NAE Statement deems it "one of the most sweeping and systematic human rights laws ever enacted," one which "for the first time makes the promotion of worldwide religious freedom a basic priority of United States foreign policy."

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Signers of the NAE Statement knew what William Wilberforce, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II have taught and shown: that the aroused consciences of free people are capable of bringing down tyrannies. They knew how constant awareness of the "God created man in his own image" truth of Genesis 1, and the "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" mandate of Hebrews 13, can empower men and women to make history.

They understand Theodore Roosevelt's perception of a critical source of America's world influence when he sent a note to the Czar of Russia denouncing a 1903 Russian pogrom against Jews. The Czar refused to accept the note, and Roosevelt was criticized in Seiple-like terms for being unduly meddlesome in the internal affairs of another country and for compromising U.S.-Russian relations. Roosevelt's response was that there were crimes so monstrous that the American conscience was obliged to assert itself.

They understand the tragic folly of American Jews who met with President Franklin Roosevelt when, during a critical period of Hitler's rise to power, he was considering the appointment of Felix Frankfurter, a Jew, to the United States Supreme Court. The delegation that met with Roosevelt—headed by New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger—importuned the President not to make the appointment on the grounds that it would promote domestic anti-Semitism and complicate ongoing diplomatic efforts with Hitler by unduly provoking him. Roosevelt ignored the advice and appointed Frankfurter.

The signers of the NAE Statement also understand that the West's silence over Hitler's brutality was essential to his consolidation of power.

Knowing this, the NAE Statement rightly deemed it "urgent to support … President [Bush] in his brave and proper characterizations of the nature and conduct of the governments of Sudan and North Korea. Calling the conduct of the Sudan government 'monstrous' and describing the government of North Korea as 'evil' holds open the same prospect for spiritual, political, and economic freedom as was promoted by President Reagan when … he justly described the former Soviet Union as an 'evil empire.' "

The Statement's issuers concluded by fundamentally rejecting the counsel urged by Bob Seiple with express vows:

  • Never to commit the sin of silence whenever we learn of religious persecution visited against faith communities, like those in Bosnia, that do not share our witness of Christ.

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  • Never to commit the sin of silence whenever we learn of bombings of houses of worship and random killings of believers like those visited this year against Christian communities in Indonesia and Pakistan and against synagogues in France and Tunisia.

  • Never to commit the sin of silence by failing to condemn, and failing to become determined and prayerful agents for change in countries such as Burma, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Saudi Arabia, and Turkmenistan, identified by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as present and consistent practitioners of systematic religious persecution.

  • Never to commit the sin of silence over the torment of ministers and practitioners of many faiths, and the torment of tens of millions of house church Christians, all now subject to pervasive persecution by a regime in China that believes its survival depends on suppressing the call of Providence to a vast population that now strains to hear, preach, and practice the Word of God. The hope that the world of the 21st century will be spared the rivers of blood that flowed so freely in the 20th depends in no small part on solemn compliance with those vows by the American government and its people.

Related Elsewhere

This article is the first part of a debate inspired by two "Speaking Out" articles written for

The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness | The increasingly irrelevant U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seems intent on attacking even those countries making improvements. (Oct. 16, 2002)
USCIRF's Concern Is To Help All Religious Freedom Victims | The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom responds to Robert Seiple's claims that it is "only cursing the darkness." (Nov. 7, 2002)

For more articles, see Christianity Today's Persecution archive.

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