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Raising the Stakes in Battle for Religious Freedom

Four US lawmakers ask colleagues to join effort to help world's victims of persecution.

A small bipartisan group of senators and congressmen has formed the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force, a new effort to combat religious persecution around the world. The lawmakers are urging their colleagues in both houses to "adopt" individuals imprisoned for their religious beliefs, and to take up their causes by appealing directly to international leaders to secure their release and change hostile policies.

"The idea is to intervene from the highest levels of the US Congress to the highest levels of the offending governments," says Rep. Joseph Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania, who co-founded the task force. "Each member can choose anyone they want to advocate on behalf of. We have lists from groups like the Freedom House, and Amnesty International that we'll make available."

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Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, co-founder of the task force, says the need is immediate and critical.

"The statistics are striking. About one-third of all minority- faith communities are forced to meet clandestinely in underground or secret group meetings," he says. "Most are nameless and lack advocates, yet they are the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns of their generation."

The formation of the task force is not happening in a vacuum. Conservative Christians in Congress have made the fight for religious freedom worldwide a central piece of their agenda. And many liberal Democrats are just as committed to a campaign for human rights.

On Monday, the House voted unanimously in favor of pressing the United Nations to condemn China for human rights violations, including restrictions on the free practice of religion. The nonbinding resolution comes just days after the Clinton administration decided it will "neither propose nor support" such a resolution at this year's session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Practical solution

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, one of the four task-force co-sponsors, says despite the battle with the White House over official policy, his plan is a practical way to take effective individual action.

"Religious freedom is at the heart of the American experience, but it has too often been far from the heart of America's foreign policy," he says. "This task force provides us with one of those opportunities, to do good works regardless of what the legislative process produces or doesn't produce."

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Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, the final co-sponsor of the task force, says this is an action that can be taken immediately and unilaterally, and there is proof that this type of approach brings results.

"Abusive governments don't like international attention on their misdeeds," he says. "I can remember a few years ago writing a letter to a Saudi Arabian ambassador about a Filipino pastor, scheduled to be executed because of his preaching in Saudi Arabia. But after receiving the letter, the Saudi government released the pastor back to his own country."

Task-force sponsors say it is designed to represent all who are persecuted for their religious beliefs, not just Christians or Jews. Initial cases proposed for action include Muslims, Baha'is, and Buddhists.

Affects all religions

"The problem of religious persecution is a remarkably ecumenical phenomenon around the world, says Stephen Prichard, Washington director of Amnesty International and supporter of the task force. "No group has a monopoly on being victimized... or victimizing others."

The formation of the task force may only be the first step. Senator Brownback hopes to expand the concept into a coordinated and more powerful multinational approach. He says he's already spoken with several European leaders who have expressed an interested in getting involved.

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