Late last year the White House announced the formation of a special commission on religious liberty worldwide. The panel is slated to meet for the first time later this month. Whether the administration's interest in the persecuted begins or ends with the panel's inception is the question of the moment, according to those who've lobbied the Clinton administration to pay attention on human rights.
The special commission is a curtsy to evangelical voices raised over the last 18 months on behalf of persecuted Christians and an important acknowledgment that religion plays a role in the conduct of foreign affairs. But lacking a mandate to act, the panel may drown in diversity.
In a "Statement of Concern" issued one year ago, evangelical leaders asked for "a new public diplomacy" to condemn anti-Christian persecution. They also called for the appointment of an adviser to the president for religious liberty. Congress sided with the leaders, adopting resolutions condemning the persecution of Christians and urging the same policy of condemnation afdorded Soviet Jews and other persecuted religious groups.
State Department officials refused to focus on the cause of Christians, choosing instead to name a committee with a broad mandate to address human-rights abuses against people of all religions. This prompted a split within the campaign, with several leaders, most prominently Chuck Colson, calling for a boycott of the commission. On the other side, evangelicals like National Association of Evangelicals president Don Argue stressed the need to be part of the process.
Two of the 20-member panel are evangelicals: Mr. Argue and James Henry, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Other members are Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Baha'i, Mormon, and African Methodist Episcopal. The panel is also weighted with academic experts in Buddhism, international conflict resolution, religious diversity, and the Holocaust.
"Religious and ethnic conflict has often been at the forefront of human-rights dilemmas in recent years," said John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state who was named chairman of the new committee. Such expansive terminology leaves most evangelicals who started this campaign dismayed that their efforts may have been broadened to the point of near-oblivion.
Chuck Colson was particularly disappointed that White House advisers, who consulted with the Christian activists, decided to place the commission under the State Department. "Having been in government, I know what that means: It means you want it to go away," he told WORLD.
Mr. Colson joined 11 other evangelicals in signing a letter to the president formally protesting the makeup of the commission and urging evangelicals not to be part of the process. The letter said the commission's ecumenical makeup would make it "predestined to gridlock because its members will bring to the table fundamental differences over basic facts."
Nina Shea, a Roman Catholic who helped start the campaign against Christian persecution and who now will serve on the panel, agrees that there are problems with its composition.
"The problem with bean counting is you never get these things quite right," she said. "There is no representative for Native American spiritists on the panel, for instance."
Ms. Shea said she is going into the commission's first meeting "armed with a list of reforms." One area Christians want addressed is immigration regulations on refugee status and the granting of asylum. Ms. Shea cited a recent case where an Iranian Christian evangelist with two small children was designated a refugee by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees but was denied entry to the United States by a U.S. immigration officer.
"These are the kinds of things we'll be asking the White House to address," said Ms. Shea.
The National Association of Evangelicals is defending its involvement with the commission, too. "We're willing to give the administration the opportunity to show us that it is concerned," said Richard Cizik, Washington representative for the NAE. "If it turns out to be a sham, then we'll take appropriate action. But until that's evident, let's assume that it's being done in good faith."
Mr. Colson emphasizes that for now he believes the president's advisers on the issue, Mr. Shattuck and Richard Shifter of the National Security Council, "are saying the right things."
Had he been asked to serve on the commission (his name was under consideration), however, he said he would not have accepted. "We are waiting to see some acknowledgment that this president knows that Christians are being slaughtered in East Timor and sold into slavery in Sudan," he said.
Michael Horowitz, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who penned the protest letter, plans to turn his attention elsewhere. "The most important thing to say is that if the internal deliberations of this committee should in any sense become the focus of this campaign to end worldwide Christian persecution, we will have failed," he told WORLD.
Calling the commission's agenda "marginal to the outcome of the campaign," Mr. Horowitz said legislative action is more imperative, as well as mobilizing the Christian community itself. "If the American Christian community energizes itself half as much as the American Jewish community did for the cause of Soviet Jews, there will be historic consequences," he said.
"Don't worry about outreach," he advises Christians. "Worry about inreach."
Mr. Horowitz is an odd friend to Christians in far places yearning to breathe free. He has had a distinguished career in law that includes service in the Reagan administration and teaching at Georgetown Law School. Thus he is more likely to be cited as an expert in tort reform than human rights. Discovering a voice for persecuted Christians among the Jewish community also takes many by surprise.
Mr. Colson says, "He's the best one perhaps" to call Christians to action because of his Jewish background. "He's seen the worst genocide of the 20th century," Mr. Colson said, referring to the Holocaust.
Mr. Horowitz has said he believes Christians could be the Jews of the 21st century. The issue captured his attention two years ago, he says, because the evidence of growing and large-scale persecution of evangelicals and Christian converts is "overwhelming."
Next week Prison Fellowship, which Mr. Colson heads, will name Mr. Horowitz the recipient of its annual William Wilberforce Award, an honor heretofore given to Christian leaders in the area of public policy.