Freeing All God's Children.

Author:Bob, Clifford
Position:Critical essay


Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights by Allen D. Hertzke. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 419pp.

Each year since 1999 the U.S. State Department has issued a lengthy report on violations of religious freedoms around the world. In recent years, Human Rights Watch and other major rights organizations have made religious persecution one of their major foci. And the world media now pays significant attention to violations of worship rights. As a result, countries such as Sudan, China, North Korea, Uzbekistan, and others have faced international pressure for their repression of various faiths, especially Christianity.

Ten years ago, however, religious rights received little of the resources or attention which they now attract. Violations of religious freedom were not ignored, but neither were they singled out for special recognition, campaigns, and monitoring. Instead, those suffering imprisonment, torture, or killing due to religious beliefs or practices were not treated particularly differently from other victims; human rights NGOs and government rights bureaucracies documented their plight and campaigned for them but only to the extent that limited budgets, pre-existing missions, and competing concerns permitted. In this sense, victims of religious persecution were only modestly different from countless other groups that endure a variety of abuses but have not become priorities of the rights movement. While the movement has done much to reduce certain abuses, it does not value all abuses equally and does not always devote its power and resources to those who are most in need.

Religious Rights on the Rise

What has changed for those facing persecution based on religion? Why have abuses of religious freedom become a major new focus of human rights NGOs, especially those based in the United States? Allen D. Hertzke sees the rise of religious rights as the triumph of an ecumenical social movement. The movement gained most of its grassroots support from America's highly organized, if sometimes fractious conservative evangelicals. The religious right, which is primarily but not exclusively Christian, had in the past focused its energies at home. But in the mid-1990s, it mobilized in support of Congressional action to monitor religious rights abuses and punish offenders, eventually rallying around the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). (1) Powerful Christian ministers pushed for this, mobilizing their parishioners with graphic accounts of the "suffering church" overseas (22). In Hertzke's account, other key actors included Freedom House's Nina Shea and Michael Horowitz, a politically connected Jew who Hertzke paints as the catalyst of the movement (146). Galvanizing support among religious conservatives in Congress and, electrifying sympathetic audiences, Horowitz convinced the evangelical foot soldiers of the movement that legislative change was not only necessary but also possible. In addition, he helped activate small but influential numbers from other religions, forming a movement that, at least on its surface, appeared ecumenical (169).

According to Hertzke, the movement faced opposition most strongly from corporations anxious to invest in countries with questionable rights records (210-03). More surprisingly, mainstream human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the World Council of Churches expressed deep reluctance to single out religious persecution as a discrete form of human rights violation, initially rejecting it as "special pleading" (177). But with rising attention to religious rights in Congress and the media, even traditional human rights organizations came to accept and in some cases embrace the cause of religious rights.

The first beneficiaries of this movement were the people of southern Sudan. While precise demographic figures are uncertain, much of this population is Christian. For decades, the region had been embroiled in war, pitting the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army against the northern, Islamist government. (2) The conflict was as much about ethnic divisions, regional autonomy, and resource allocation as about religion. Ultimately, it cost perhaps 3 million lives, mostly civilians, killed in the fighting itself or through its indirect effects--famine and disease. But until the late 1990s, the Sudanese conflict had never garnered major international attention. As a result, the warring parties had escaped strong international pressure to find a peaceful solution, even while civilians paid a terrible price.

But with growing mobilization around religious freedom in the U.S., Sudan became an ideal "poster child" for the burgeoning movement. The conflict was portrayed as a battle between radical Islam and struggling Christianity. Narratives of repression and faith by visiting Sudanese refugees personalized and dramatized the conflict to church audiences. Enslavement of Black African Christians by Muslim Arabs also became a central theme. This ignited activism by African-Americans across the political spectrum, though the morality and utility of a signature tactic--slave redemptions for cash--came into question because of...

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