When three Pakistanis turned machine guns on a church in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, last Sunday, killing 16 Protestant worshippers, many conservative American Christians felt disgusted--and vindicated.
For years now, Christian activists have been pushing to make religious persecution--and especially persecution of Christians--a greater part of American foreign policy. In the days after Sept. 11, the strong message from the White House was that such human rights concerns were going to have to take a back seat to the broader war effort. To fight terrorism, the White House has extended the hand of friendship to precisely the countries the Christian persecution movement has opposed--notably Sudan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan.
Michael Horwitz, one of the leaders of this movement against religious persecution, stated it bluntly: "If Colin Powell and the State Department think we can have an alliance with regimes that not only are making protests in Pakistan, but that are liberated to slaughter Christians, they've got another thing coming."
Onward Christian Soldiers
On a Sunday morning in late September, Pastor Chris Robinson is delivering a sermon intended to help his congregation at Grace Bible Church put the events of Sept. 11 in perspective. The church is located in the tiny burg of Marshall, tucked among the rolling hills of northwest Virginia's horse country in the heart of the nation's most active "Christian solidarity" community. Robinson's congregation of 200 consists mostly of young families who have been active in the movement for years. Recently, members returned from relief missions to isolated communities of Christians in Burma and Sudan.
To members of Grace Bible Church, the attack carried special resonance because it brought home an issue that until now had been, quite literally, a foreign concern. "There are Christians being persecuted all over the world today," Robinson told his congregation. "Now that is true in our own country." One by one, churchgoers rose to testify to this issue. Many offered prayers for fellow Christians who'd perished in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Others expressed hope that the sudden interest in hostile religious regimes overseas would bring national attention to their cause.
Quite a few, however, were troubled by the alliance Bush struck with countries like Sudan. "I'm forced to see it as the lesser of two evils," said David Servideo, 24, echoing the comments of others. "But my fear is that it will set back our efforts to help those people."
Robinson's sermon explained how a thoughtful Christian might react to the world that's emerged since the attack. He talked about the Apostle Paul's struggle to revitalize the feuding Christian community in Corinth, and drew a parallel to the need for Christians to revitalize their own faith so they can once again carry their mission to those abroad. Unlike Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, Robinson considers the attack the ultimate confirmation of a worldview that sees Christians as a despised victim group, and the current war as one between Christianity and those who would vanquish it.
Most observers trace the beginning of this movement to July 5, 1995, when Michael Horowitz, former general counsel in Reagan's Office of Management and Budget, published an editorial in The Wall Street Journal entitled, "New Intolerance Between the Crescent and the Cross." Horowitz, a Jewish neoconservative and a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, detailed the plight of persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East.
He concluded by calling for intervention. "For American Jews, who owe our very lives to the open door of the blessed land," he wrote, "silence should not be an option in the face of persecutions eerily parallel to those committed by Adolf Hitler." Horowitz says his editorial did not elicit a single response.
That year Horowitz connected with Nina Shea, an activist who had opposed religious persecution by the Sandanistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s. They began working to put the issue of Christian persecution on the map. Undaunted by the initial lack of interest, Horowitz wrote to 150 mission boards alerting them to the crisis.
In January 1996, the pair hosted a conference on "Global Persecution of Christians" in Washington, D.C., which drew religious leaders from across the country. This time, the issue hit big. The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement of conscience supporting the fight against Christian persecution. Right-of-center Episcopalians and Presbyterians, as well as Southern Baptists, each lent their support. Horowitz also helped establish an International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church to raise public awareness, an idea he says came to him one morning in the shower.
With much of the intellectual leadership coming from Washington, the Christian persecution movement began spreading a simple message: Millions of Christians face terrible persecution from oppressive regimes in China and in many Muslim countries. But American foreign policy is so concerned with opening new markets that these abuses have been ignored. "Christians are the Jews of the 21st century," says Horowitz, repeating a favorite soundbite.
To the surprise of many, the issue of persecuted Christians captured the concern of evangelical Protestants. For churches like Grace Bible Church, which became active in the Christian solidarity movement five years ago, it complemented their own efforts to evangelize overseas.
As it spread among evangelicals, the movement also came to include conservative Jews and Catholics, Southern Baptists and some of the more open-minded liberal activists like Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. But the issue seemed particularly appealing to evangelicals for whom Reagan conservatism was primarily a moral--rather than an economic--political movement. It was the involvement of this group, whose foot soldiers had turned abortion and school choice into national political issues, that helped popularize the issue of Christian persecution.
While the grassroots of the movement was learning about Christian persecution firsthand, Horowitz enlisted Beltway heavyweights like Chuck Colson, James Dobson, and William Bennett, and appealed to members of Congress like Frank Wolf and Chris Smith (R-NJ) in the House, and Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) in the Senate. Working outside mainstream media outlets, this group disseminated its message through religious channels like radio broadcasts and denominational newsletters.
"What happened was done beneath the radar screen of official Washington," Horowitz says. "Yet when members would get back home to their districts, ministers would approach them and say, What are you doing about Sudan and Christian persecution?"
Just Ain't My Cross to Bear
The movement first took legislative shape when Wolf and Specter introduced The Freedom from Religious Persecution Act in 1997. Modeled after legislation from the 1970s designed to penalize the Soviet Union for denying Jews the right to emigrate, the Wolf-Specter bill established an ambassador-at-large position for religious freedom, required the State Department to issue a detailed annual report on the status of religious liberties around the world and, most controversially, required the president to take one of 15 diplomatic actions against any country designated an especially egregious violator of religious rights. The bill was so upsetting to the State Department that Horowitz claims Madeleine Albright accosted him in a restaurant shortly after its introduction. "She launched into a diatribe about how the Wolf-Specter bill would destroy her capacity to conduct foreign policy," he says.
The Christian lobbyists did not just irritate the Clinton administration, but also powerful Republicans in Congress more interested in getting at Sudan's oil reserves than ending Christian persecution. The religious and business wings of the Republican Party had clashed a year earlier over giving China, another abuser of Christians, most-favored-nation trading status. Religious conservatives lost that battle outright.
They did better with Wolf-Specter. Business lobbyists weakened the bill by giving the president flexibility to waive sanctions. Nonetheless, passage of what became the International Religious Freedom Act was an important symbolic victory. Religious persecution generated enough interest among conservative and, increasingly, mainstream congregations to launch a new special-interest community.
In the last two decades, two million black Christians and animists in southern Sudan have died of starvation, disease, or ethnic cleansing at the hands of the fundamentalist Islamic government in the north. News that slavery persists in Sudan has helped bring wider public awareness to the area.
President Bush took office with a veteran foreign policy team that had little desire to become entangled in a messy humanitarian mission to Africa. So narrow were Bush's foreign policy goals that a group of two dozen influential conservatives (including Elliot Abrams, Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, and Marvin Olasky) admonished the president in a letter that also carried this subtle threat: "Any administration indifferent to [religious freedom and human rights] risks serious loss of their support and broad public support in general."
It also helped that the victims of persecution were black, since outreach to blacks was part of Bush's political strategy. With groups like the National Black Leadership Committee and the NAACP joining the chorus against Sudan, the Christian persecution movement became a political force. Horowitz and black leaders made a conscious effort to model their campaign on the struggle against South African apartheid.
In March, Colin Powell, America's first black secretary of state, testified before Congress that "there is perhaps no greater tragedy on the face of the earth today than the tragedy that is unfolding in Sudan." Taking another page from the left, movement leaders also attracted celebrities. Franklin Graham (son of the Rev. Billy Graham), who runs a relief mission in southern Sudan, lobbied Bush personally.
In April, Horowitz was arrested for chaining himself to the Sudanese embassy in Washington. In a show of support, Johnnie Cochran defended Horowitz in court. (Charges were dropped.) That same month, the Rev. Al Sharpton visited Sudan, announcing upon return that he planned to revisit the troubled country with, among others, pop star Michael Jackson.
On Sept. 11, at nine in the morning, Horowitz arrived in Sen. Brownback's office to plot a counterstrategy. They settled on a dozen ideas they could send along that both were comfortable with and believed they could sell to activists around the country.
"As I was sitting there," says Horowitz, "Sam was literally about to pick up the phone to call [the White House] and say, 'We're out of the dilemma,' when suddenly aides rushed in, hustled us out of the building and told us that the country was under attack."
In the wake of the attack, Christian solidarity leaders recognized that the foreign policy ground had fundamentally shifted. Countries such as Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan suddenly were of great interest to the administration, not because they persecuted Christians, but because they possessed intelligence vital in the new struggle.
Rather than get tough on these countries, Bush embraced them. Christian solidarity activists were furious. Even so, Horowitz saw an opportunity. On Sept. 12, as Bush was scrambling for language that would frame the attacks and the U.S. response in acceptable terms, Horowitz faxed his allies in the administration the work of David Forte, a law professor at Cleveland State University and conservative Catholic who's written extensively on the issue of Christian persecution.
Forte argued that modern Islam had been hijacked by an ancient strain of radical fundamentalism that was closer to fascism than to the spirit of tolerance preached by the Koran. In a sense, his argument fit the administration's desire to cast the fight in a way that wouldn't alienate moderate Muslims. White House speechwriters transformed Forte's thesis into the most pivotal passage of Bush's Sept. 20 joint address to Congress: "We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety ... They follow the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends: in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
"By borrowing from the language [of the Christian persecution movement], they're tuning in on the people that they want to reassure with the words necessary to do so," says an aide on the House Foreign Relations Committee. But by ignoring the rest of Forte's argument--that radicalized Islamic governments and the millions who share their views are persecuting millions of Christians worldwide--Bush essentially secularized the movement's theology, to the dismay of its proponents.
Christian activists were further alarmed when the U.S. allowed the U.N. to lift travel sanctions from Sudan on Sept. 28. U.N. efforts to end economic sanctions also appear to have White House backing. On Sept. 19, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) was on the floor of the House about to call for a conference committee on the Sudan Peace Act, when he was intercepted by administration officials. The Sudan Peace Act has since been shelved. State Department Policy Planning Director Richard Haass has privately told colleagues that at this point the administration has no interest in human rights considerations.
In early October, the government of Sudan bombed U.N. aid workers in southern Sudan for three days, prompting the enraged U.N. to close its food distribution program and pull out. The awkwardness of the new U.S. position was best captured in a Reuters headline on the attacks: "U.S. Slams Sudan For Bombings, Still Wants Its Help."
With Sudan no longer a pariah, Christians' strategy of economic isolation was suddenly obsolete. On Oct. 11, religious leaders and representatives of human rights groups met in a cramped basement meeting room at Freedom House to devise new tactics. The group included not only evangelical leaders, but also representatives of the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Southern Baptist churches, and black civic and religious organizations.
At a time when most Americans were singing Bush's praises, those at this meeting were astonished and angry. Three decisions emerged. First, the group agreed to publicize the ongoing Sudanese attacks on Christians and U.N. workers. Second, it decided to push for a cease-fire in the Sudanese civil war and for oil profits to be placed in a trust fund where they couldn't be used to arm the government. Finally, the groups agreed to shift their lobbying effort from the State Department to the president himself.
Their first opportunity to employ this pressure will come on Nov. 4, at this year's International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. The event will be simulcast to Christian radio stations across the country. The major networks, as well as the president, have been invited to attend. Not coincidentally, the event will be held in Bush's hometown of Midland, Texas.
The Christian human rights movement could become a major irritant to the Bush administration's anti-terrorism war, especially if they join forces with human rights groups on the left. Such an alliance almost occurred last month over American foreign policy. A group of liberal human rights organizations sought Christian solidarity leaders' support for a declaration condemning the administration for ignoring human rights in its war against terrorism. The Christian groups declined because liberals rejected language that characterized the Sept. 11 attackers as "terrorists" (they insisted on "perpetrators").
Despite the setback, common goals and the recent history of cooperation suggest that an eventual foreign policy alliance may be inevitable. Such an alliance could significantly undermine support for Bush's war strategy. But that could be a good thing, since the strategy needs some rethinking. The administration has declared that states such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even Sudan are "cooperating" with the fight against terrorism for sharing intelligence data and agreeing to end ongoing sponsorship of terrorism.
Though it may be necessary in a time of war for the U.S. to sympathize with the internal pressures in these regimes, the price of compromise needn't include millions more innocent lives. "Cooperating" with the U.S. should also include an easing of religious and political oppression.
The reason is simple. Terrorism and religious fanaticism fester in these countries in part because repressive regimes limit political dissent to the Mosque. As Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria has noted, Arab countries such as Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and Qatar, produce fewer terrorists and less fanaticism because their governments, though hardly democratic, "have opened up a little political and civil space and tried to show that Islam is compatible with modernity."
A commitment by the Bush administration to ending religious persecution might push long-time allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to follow suit and perhaps improve our image in the Muslim world.
Such an effort isn't incompatible with the pressing need to fight terrorism. President Clinton pushed hard for closer economic ties to China. But thanks in part to pressure from liberal human rights groups, during his visit to China he spoke openly about U.S. opposition to the government's mistreatment of religious minorities, including Christians.
Bush should strive to be similarly outspoken--more so, in fact--with our Islamic allies in the Middle East. Demanding human rights concessions from regimes like Sudan isn't inconsistent with Bush's moral justification for war. On the contrary, it reinforces his very point. If pressure from religious conservatives and other human rights organizations bring about this realization, they'll be doing America's war effort a great service.
This article is adapted from The Washington Monthly.