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People of Divergent Faiths Battle Scourge of Religious Persecution

Belief: Amid suffering in Tibet, atrocities in Sudan and oppression in China and elsewhere, activists see hope in Congress' passage of a bill to increase freedoms worldwide.


Wherever he goes to speak, Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso carries these tools of torture as gruesome testament to his 33 years in Chinese-operated prisons and labor camps in his native Tibet:

The electric cattle prods that shattered his teeth and disabled his tongue when forced into his mouth. The thumb cuffs that held his arms in a pretzel around his back and eventually dislocated his shoulders. The handcuffs that squeezed more tightly every time he moved and left permanent indentations in his bony arms.

But little has changed in Tibet despite his logging hundreds of thousands of miles speaking to Congress and human rights groups since his release in 1992, says Gyatso, who made his first speaking tour of Los Angeles this week.

Despite such Hollywood movies as "Seven Years in Tibet," the high-profile activism of the Dalai Lama and President Clinton's visit to China this year, Gyatso says religious persecution has only intensified.

Now he--and a host of religious groups--see one new glimmer of hope on the horizon: congressional passage last week of legislation to support international religious freedom.

The legislation, which Clinton has said he will sign, sets up fact-finding agencies in Congress, the White House and the State Department to publish annual reports on religious persecution around the world. It also requires the president to choose a response to an offending country from 15 options, ranging from a private diplomatic rebuke to a ban on government purchase of goods from the nation.

Because of a crucial compromise that led to passage, however, the president may waive a response by declaring an "important national interest."

Still, even those who had hoped for stronger measures see the legislation as an important tool in dealing with what many say is the worst century of religious persecution in history. Sectarian oppression has increased, activists say, since the Clinton administration cut the link between human rights and preferential trade status in 1994.

"This bill restores religious liberty to the place it belongs in foreign policy: front and center," said Steven T. McFarland of the Christian Legal Society.

From the genocidal slaughter of Bosnian Muslims to the kidnapping, enslaving and rape of Sudanese Christians, from the imprisonment of Catholic bishops in China to the demolition of thousands of Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, 77 nations were cited last year in a State Department report on religious discrimination and persecution.

Activists say Christians in particular are suffering unparalleled levels of persecution--an estimated 200 million victims around the world, according to the book "Their Blood Cries Out." They believe the world has not adequately responded.

That neglect raised too many "eerie parallels" with his own people's past, said Jewish activist Michael Horowitz, and led him to spearhead the drive for the religious liberty legislation. Despite the Christian suffering, he said, he would hear comments about it that were hauntingly reminiscent of world indifference to the Holocaust: "We can't focus our foreign policy around them."

"I'm a Jew who has come to feel that they have killed too many of my people to be useful scapegoats for things. So evangelical Christians and Catholics have become in the 21st century the scapegoats of choice for [repressive] and brutal regimes," said Horowitz of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Indianapolis.

"What began as a campaign to save lambs quickly became a campaign to understand why these human rights victims were treated in such a hostile and indifferent fashion," he said.

The rising persecution is partly a backlash against the worldwide explosion of Christianity, as the faith wins millions of converts in such places as Asia and Africa, experts say.

Other factors include the emergence of "radical Islamic fundamentalism" in places like Egypt and Pakistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union--which raised fears among rulers in China and other Communist countries about the free practice of religion, said David Adams of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

The synod has several hundred missionaries in 50 countries and has received numerous reports of indigenous believers being persecuted. (Western missionaries are generally not targeted "because it draws too much attention," he said.) One of the synod's current cases involves a Lutheran pastor in the former Soviet state of Belarus, who was sentenced to three years in prison on "trumped-up charges" of pedophilia, Adams said.

The Southern Baptist Convention, whose 4,200 missionaries in 124 nations give it one of the largest world outreach programs, says it has received reports of persecution but declined to speak publicly about them for fear of jeopardizing the missionaries' work. As a result of such concerns, some organizations declined to support the religious freedom bill, said one congressional source.

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