Jewish support on the upswing for anti-persecution legislation

WASHINGTON — As Congress took its first action in late March on legislation targeted at religious persecution abroad, support for such a law continued to build among Jewish groups.

The House International Relations Committee approved the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act by a vote of 31-5, handing a victory to religious activists who began trumpeting the cause more than a year ago.

But in the Senate, alternative legislation has emerged that is further complicating an already complex and contentious issue — and its implications for Israel seem to be one source of concern.

The measure, introduced by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.), contains a far broader definition of persecution, prompting concerns among some Jewish activists.

Under the measure, single acts, rather than a pattern of abuse committed because of an individual's religious beliefs, would apparently constitute religious persecution. As a result, some activists say certain Israeli practices toward Palestinians — such as interrogations, curfews and closures — could come under scrutiny, even though religious, not political, actions are the target of the proposed legislation.

The measure that passed the House International Relations Committee, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), specifically targets "widespread and ongoing" government acts of abduction, enslavement, imprisonment, forced mass relocation, rape, crucifixion and other forms of torture of religious minorities.

It would bar all but humanitarian aid to countries engaged in the persecution of religious minorities, ban equipment exports that could be used as tools of torture and make it easier for those fleeing religious persecution to be granted asylum.

The Anti-Defamation League endorsed the legislation, saying that recent modifications have satisfied concerns about whether the measure can effectively address the problem.

The Orthodox Union also announced its support for the bill, joining the Reform movement's Religious Action Center and the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition, both of which got behind the bill last year.