Religious Persecution Drives Diplomacy Shift but a White House Effort to Respond to the Problem Fails to Satisfy Christian Groups - and Some US Lawmakers

Article excerpt

Persecution of religious minorities overseas is a budding moral and foreign policy problem for the Clinton administration.

As a State Department report this week indicates, the problem is due mainly to an ongoing crackdown in places like China and Sudan on a group the White House can't easily ignore - Christians.

But the report is proving to be controversial for its focus on the persecution of a single faith. The approach seems heavy-handed to many State Department officials, who argue that effective human rights work can't be done abroad if it appears to local governments that fickle US domestic politics are forcing the change in focus. "My impression is that it was necessary to do this - once," says one highly placed State Department source. "Given the climate on the Hill, we needed to respond. ... But if this becomes a yearly thing, it is going to be counterproductive. It will make it harder to do human rights work, and it won't help Christians, or anyone else." The report, which touched on several religious groups but specifically addressed the persecution of Christians in 78 countries, showed that Chinese believers continue to be systematically arrested in a widespread campaign stemming from a central policy directive in Beijing last year. It also urged Russia's President Boris Yeltsin to veto a law that would severely restrict minority religious worship. Mr. Yeltsin did veto the law just before the report's release Religious persecution abroad is also a touchy political issue at home for President Clinton - mainly because of an effective lobby of conservative Christians and Jews who have the ear of an increasing number of US lawmakers. They criticize what they see as a White House policy of indifference toward religious minorities overseas, including Christians. Human rights groups grumbled loudly during the president's first term, saying the White House neglected human rights issues. Critics also say the culture of the State Department itself has long been typified as elite and secular, and not especially sympathetic to issues of faith. Foreign service officers abroad are known often to feel more empathy with local officials than with, say, evangelicals, whom they sometimes warn against using an aggressive proselytizing style. But the State Department and the White House are being nudged down a different path by a new Washington lobby. Made up of a loose coalition of figures, including Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, it is trying to awaken a broader group of religious Americans to abuses abroad - in a way not seen since the campaign in the late '70s to stop the persecution of Jews in the former Soviet Union. …

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