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Altar Must Stand Higher Than Cash Box

A.M. Rosenthal New York Times

Why are Communist and militant Islamic dictatorships persecuting Christians? Why are Western democracies reacting so passively - or not at all? What can be done to ease the repression?

Every government knows Protestants and Catholics are persecuted in a score of countries. For trying to worship openly and as their religion teaches, Christians are arrested and tortured by the thousands - and many killed.

Among countries with the most vicious records is the one that the West courts most lustfully, China. Also on the list are American “allies” - like Saudi Arabia, where U.S. troops helping the monarchy survive or American workers making it richer cannot worship openly or display symbols of their religion.

Just this week, Reuters reported that 1,000 Pakistani Christian families were driven from their homes by Muslim rioters - village looted and churches set afire.

But the obvious questions above are never answered by Western governments and persons of power - nor asked. The hounds of Heaven pursue with the answers.

Dictatorships, for all their brutish swagger, are terrified by free thoughts and minds. They threaten the control without which dictators fear to govern. By definition, free worship is an enemy.

Freedom of worship is proclaimed in international agreements on human rights. But the West has eliminated the support of those rights as a foreign policy. The overriding policy, suffocating all others, now is trade.

Dictatorships do have a human rights policy. Act against any variety of our oppressions and we will punish you with loss of trade. The West answers forthrightly: Yes, master.

Much can be done to ease oppression, and not long ago was. During the Soviet empire, U.S. ambassadors and visiting officials regularly met in Moscow with dissidents. The oppressed knew, and so did the Kremlin, that they had a powerful ally.

Beijing has cowed Americans into fleeing from Christians and others it imprisoned for crimes of the mind. The United States, which denounced the Soviet gulag, now gives military honors to the killers of the Chinese gulag.

The new U.S. policy of betrayal of religious and political rights was shaped by companies doing business with the dictatorships. They turned President Clinton right around - his back now to his own promises.

An American movement for persecuted Christians is just developing. An administration advisory committee on religion met for the first time Thursday. Tremble, Beijing.

Why has there been no powerful U.S. constituency for persecuted Christians as there was for Soviet dissidents and South African blacks? The answer is in our stars - our business, political and intellectual leaders - and in ourselves.

American businessmen supported Soviet Jews and evangelicals when no big trade deals were at risk. Liberal American intellectuals and politicians also supported them - and the boycott against apartheid.

Now intellectuals and some religious organizations find the movement for Christian religious freedom too conservative on other matters; all together now, wrinkle noses. Do we really need a political litmus test for supporting religious freedom?

Members of the movement for Christian oppressed tell of other problems. They say that Christians do not often enough see themselves in oppressed Christians far away, as a Jewish industrialist remembering the Holocaust might see something of himself in a persecuted Jewish sweeper in Yemen. And ministers in the movement are sometimes lectured that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

Christian theology is not my specialization. I only know all prisoners for freedom are intertwined in their chains. Who can believe that their sufferings will not ease if the chairmen of Boeing, General Motors, Morgan Guaranty and Microsoft, and U.S. presidents and secretaries of state past and present, rise to say that the altar must stand higher than the cash register, and pledge to make it so?

And if they fail in their duty to do this, where is it written that the rest of us are absolved from doing ours?


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