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Powerful pen

Multiple Choice question: When a February meeting in Washington brought together religious leaders supporting legislation designed to help persecuted Christians abroad, who was honored for his especially influential efforts? (a) William Bennett (b) Gary Bauer (c) Bill Bright (d) Chuck Colson (e) none of the above.

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

The correct answer is (e), because the honoree was a 76-year-old, Jewish but non-religious, former New York Times editor, Abe Rosenthal. Here is his story.

Like others who escaped the Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of the Bronx to take up residence on the Upper East Side, Abe Rosenthal has a bona fide story from the school of hard knocks.

Expect to hear that he suffered severe personal hardship and disappointment before making it through City College of New York and into the newsroom of one of the world's most read daily papers, The New York Times.

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Expect to learn that the hard knocks prepared him for hard work, and that the hard work paid off. He made a name for himself as a foreign correspondent in Poland during the turbulent post-war years. He went on to distinguish himself among journalists as managing editor of the Times during the turbulent Vietnam-to-Watergate era.

Expect such a career to be rewarded. After more than 40 years in the newsroom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is now freed from daily editorial decisions to be a columnist. Twice a week, at age 76, he writes "On My Mind," a reflective op-ed regular with a title suggesting recompense for a long journey in the same direction.

What not to expect from Mr. Rosenthal in the twilight of a bronzed career?
You would not expect him to take up a cause that big-city papers typically regard as boobish. That is exactly what he did when he wrote his first column concerning Christian persecution a year ago. Some columns, he wrote then, "have to be written as soon as information is collected, no matter how late."

Confessing to a latter-day conversion regarding the cause of persecuted Christian believers in places like China and Sudan, he said: "If I were a Christian I would complain that Christian leaders, political, religious, and business, around the world have failed in their obligations to fight oppression of their co-religionists. I am complaining anyway." He chastised Jewish groups and government leaders, too, for failing to take up the cause. He concluded, "And, personal note: Once awake, don't fall asleep again."

In his own state of wakefulness, Mr. Rosenthal went on to write 20 more columns in 1997 devoted to Christians under siege. He told readers about imprisonments of pastors in China, enslavement in Sudan, and church burnings in Pakistan. He took on the conservative business community as well as liberal watchdog groups like Amnesty International for turning a blind eye to those abuses. He lectured corporate heads and heads of state for not agreeing "that the altar must stand higher than the cash register."

Mr. Rosenthal regularly examined connections between belief and public policy, bringing the persecution theme to bear on the year's hot political stories: illegal fundraising by the Clinton administration involving China, debate in the U.S. House over extending China's Most Favored Nation trade status, and arms dealing with Beijing. He pushed for passage of a religious persecution bill that failed last year but looks more likely to succeed now, with support promised by the congressional leadership.

For the Christians who have been behind this effort a long time, Mr. Rosenthal represents muckraking at its best. In the year Mr. Rosenthal calls "one of the most awakening years in my lifetime of newspapering," persecuted Christians found unexpected, regular exposure in one of the country's highest-circulation newspapers by a Jew from the Bronx willing to go to the mat for them.

"He has gone at it with passionate enthusiasm, but I imagine without the fullest enthusiasm from those who pay his salary," said McCandlish Phillips, a colleague at The New York Times (now retired) and an evangelical Christian. Passion for this particular cause, however, should not be confused with allegiance to Christianity itself.

Mr. Rosenthal always refers to the Christians he loves to champion in the third person. "Christian theology is not my specialization," he wrote in one column. Abraham Michael Rosenthal says his grandfather was "a very devout man," but his father, a fur trapper and trader on Hudson Bay, was "not religious."

Born in Ontario to Russian Jewish parents who had immigrated to Canada, young Abe moved with his family to New York during the Depression. He had five older sisters, and no brothers. His father became a house painter. When Abe was 12 years old, his older sister Bess died of pneumonia. At 13, his father died after a fall from scaffolding. During his college years, another sister, Elizabeth, died of cancer. Later, his sister Ruth died after giving birth. A fourth sister, Anne, died of cancer.


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