Lantos heads fight against global bigotry

WASHINGTON — Picture this: religious leaders jailed, places of worship vandalized, forced conversions.

Nazi Germany? Inquisition-era Spain?

The scene is modern-day Burma, where the government, in the words of a recent State Department report, "systematically violates the religious freedom of Buddhist monks and of ethnic minority Christians and Muslims."

A Sept. 27 Congressional Human Rights Caucus forum spotlighted China's persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uigher Muslims, and the Falun Gong. Perhaps significantly, caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) and his wife, volunteer executive director Annette Lantos, are both Holocaust survivors.

"The Chinese issue is one of our main concerns," said Lantos, who, along with Rep. John Porter of Illinois, founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus two decades ago.

"There is continued persecution of people on both religious and political grounds. I have taken up the cause of the Falun Gong because they clearly merit it. They are a peaceful, non-threatening and contemplative, meditative group which has been viciously persecuted by this dictatorial regime."

In its 2000 religious freedom report, the State Department cites a septet of "countries of particular concern." In addition to Burma and China, the list includes Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Serbia and Sudan.

Among the seven, only Iran has significant numbers of Jews. Small Jewish communities remain in Serbia and Hong Kong, China.

Yet some major Jewish organizations, notably the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have put combating the persecution of other faiths on their agenda.

"You cannot secure freedom for Jews without securing it for everyone," said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, an arm of the AJCommittee. "Jews are often the first to be persecuted. As [AJCommittee executive director] David Harris says, we are the coal miner's canary."

Yet this cause has not seemed to catch on with the Jewish grassroots. The same community members who may march, petition and write letters on behalf of cancer cures or gun control appear largely absent from the debate.

"There's been no real systematic effort, even for those groups involved at the national level, to really move this issue to the front burner of the Jewish community's agenda or to mobilize the grassroots," says Rabbi David Saperstein, RAC director, who until June served as first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Not everyone accepts this critique. Gaer points out that most faith activists focus on their co-religionists, as have Jews in the recent case of the Iran 10, whose plight generated rallies, meetings, sermons and letters.

Yet the question remains: In a community that hails the Righteous Gentiles of the Nazi era, where are the righteous Jews of today?

Religious rights, it seems, matters more to a handful of dedicated professionals at national Jewish organizations than they do to the Jew in a typical synagogue.

At the Blaustein Institute, "we mix public and private advocacy," said Gaer, noting behind-the-scenes contacts with Chinese officials as well as with U.S. officials who relate to China on the treatment of religious minorities there.

A special empathy for other embattled faiths exists among many traditional Jews, who because of their customs and garb, may be more visible and thereby subject to hostility in the larger community.

"We as Orthodox Jews feel very vulnerable to religious discrimination, so we fight it as best we can in as many venues as possible," said the O.U.'s director of international affairs and community relations, Betty Ehrenberg.

Her group is contesting Sudan's nomination to the U.N. Security Council. An "Urgent Action" memorandum, calling for protest letters to members of Congress and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, went out Sept. 8 to O.U.-affiliated rabbis and leaders.

Reform Jews also have a long history of human rights' activism, including in the 1980s, concern for the freedoms of Central Americans, blacks in apartheid-torn South Africa and Tibetan Buddhists.

The RAC has focused on conditions in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Sudan, where, according to Saperstein, the 17-year civil war has "killed and displaced more people than Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Chechnya put together."

Since 1993, the ADL has taken its tolerance training abroad, starting with Rostock, Germany, where Turkish Muslim immigrants were victims of violence in the late 1980s. The program now reaches educators and police officers in seven German cities.

For the past five years, ADL has also partnered with the Centre Europeen Juif d'Information, Europe's Jewish liaison to the European Union, in bringing peer-based tolerance training to high school students in E.U. nations.

"If you're concerned with the religious freedom for all, you have to be concerned with discrimination against religious minorities in Europe," said AJCommittee's Gaer, noting the mistreatment not only of Muslims, but of Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Two years ago, those Jewish groups were among thosepushing for passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. Passed in October 1998, the law, co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), created a special unit within the human rights office of the State Department to monitor religious persecution around the world.

Violations of religious rights now require a U.S. response, ranging from a private reproach to overt economic sanctions. The International Religious Freedom Act's commission can make recommendations of this kind to the president and secretary of state.

Overall, Saperstein sees the measure working.

In his travels around the globe for IRFA, he found that it was promoting new contacts between U.S. embassies and beleaguered religious leaders.

"We're really a source of hope and encouragement for religious minorities in these countries," he said.

Today, say some observers, IRFA still has its hitches.

"All the talk about religious persecution abroad…has ignored the status of Jews and the presence of anti-Semitism," noted Gaer. "We find ourselves in the curious position of reminding people."

Paradoxically, religion, which aims to ennoble human beings, can, when taken to extremes, foment its own forms of oppression. The Blaustein Institute sponsored a 1999 conference on fundamentalism and the rights of women.

"Fundamentalism in all six [major] religions tends to demand 'obedience' from women," explained Gaer. "The emphasis on 'obedience' of women to a spouse becomes the basis for physical violence against women, including beating and, in some cases, death."

As one extreme example, she cited Indian practice of sati, the ritual burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.

The IRFA, she believes, failed to adequately address the implications of religious persecution for women.

Saperstein thinks Jewish groups should be doing more.