IN JANUARY 1996, Pope John Paul II called religious persecution “an intolerable and unjustifiable violation … of the most fundamental human freedom, that of practicing one's faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.”

A year later, religious leaders, human rights activists and scholars are preparing for the first meeting in Washington, D.C. of the State Department Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad. The 20-member committee was formed last fall and immediately drew kudos as well as questions about how much leverage it will have to fight against religious intolerance.

Persecution abroad ranges from the selling of Christians into chattel slavery in the Sudan to China's history of imprisoning Catholics active in the “underground” Church who professes loyalty to the Pope. The cases of torture and killing of people for their faith include such tragedies as the kidnapping and murder of seven Trappist monks in Algeria last March. Another problem area is Vietnam, where the government reserves the right to appoint Catholic bishops and Buddhist abbots.

John Shattuck, State Department assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who will chair the committee, said the panel's primary goals include, “fostering greater dialogue between religious communities and the U.S. government, increasing the flow of information to the U.S. government concerning the conditions of religious minorities facing persecution around the world, and informing interested groups and individuals about the U.S. government's efforts to address issues of religious persecution and religious freedom.”

But some observers wonder if the advisory committee has the power to affect change. Supporters point out that there are some strong players on the panel. Among those appointed by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher: Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, of Newark, N.J., and chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference's (USCC) International Policy Committee; Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M.; Dr. Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Nina Shea, director of the Puebla Program at Freedom House, a New York-based human rights group. Other committee members represent the Jewish, Muslim and Bahai faiths.

Panelists will serve two year-terms and will meet several times annually. The committee is expected to hold its first meeting by February, said Alexandra Arriaga, a State Department staff member and executive secretary of the panel. No agenda has been set for the meeting yet.

Still, some people concerned with religious persecution issues worry that the panel format might not be the most efficacious way to address the problem. Even some who agreed to serve—including Argue and Shea, whose organization monitors religious liberty around the world—believe a special adviser to the president would be more effective. Despite their concerns, they are willing to give the committee a chance.

“We [hope to] see the issue of religious persecution become a priority for the U.S. government,” said Argue. The NAE's approach “is to give the Clinton administration a chance to show its concern,” said Rev. Richard Cizik, NAE policy analyst. He said the association will continue to use as a tool its Statement of Conscience on Worldwide Religious Persecution that was released one year ago.

But some critics, including Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, are reportedly skeptical that a panel tied to the State Department will be able to function independently and effectively. Land did not respond to requests for an interview. But Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, willingly expressed his concerns. “The people on the committee are well-meaning, caring people of good will, so it's even more insulting. It's like the old joke: If you want to duck a problem, appoint a committee,” he said.

Horowitz called for stronger measures, noting that the 1980s'Campaign for Soviet Jewry resulted in U.S. pressure to allow Jews to emigrate to Israel. “What we did was confront the evil. We did it with the support of the Christian community,” he said. Horowitz, who is Jewish, said the fight against the persecution of Christians “is a way to say ‘thank you.’”

Shea said threats to religious freedom come from the ideological intolerance found primarily in communist countries.

Horowitz and others said Shea would have been an ideal special adviser. Shea did not comment on that recommendation, but said, “I would have preferred an adviser. The committee does not represent all points of view. There are already complaints that there is not a Native American point of view. We'll never satisfy everyone. [The committee is] the best possibility we've ever had, so we'll act in good faith.”

The USCC has thus far stayed out of the committee versus adviser debate. “We are less concerned with the procedural issues than the substantive issues,” said John Carr, who directs the USCC's Department of Social Development and World Peace in Washington, D.C. Carr said the conference concentrates on remedying the U.S. government's “woefully inadequate” response to the issues of religious freedom and persecution. “Time will tell,” he said of the committee's ability to effect change, but added that Archbishop McCarrick's and Bishop Ramirez's presence on the panel is a hopeful sign.

Bishop Ramirez has declined comment until after the committee begins meeting. Archbishop McCarrick was in Israel when contacted by the Register, but Michael Hurley, Newark archdiocesan spokesman, said the prelate is gearing up for the committee's work, adding that “for years, (Archbishop McCarrick) has been closely involved in the monitoring of human rights and religious persecution worldwide.” Hurley said the archbishop has negotiated with Fidel Castro, assisted in getting families out of Russia and “jogged the conscience of the U.S. government when it came to Bosnia.” Archbishop McCarrick was also a strong advocate for bringing Catholics, Muslims and Serbian Orthodox together for dialogue in 1992 in the former Yugoslavia.

“He brings a great deal of knowledge, compassion and idealism to the committee,” said Hurley. “He is very practical. He knows it's not just dialogue.” Hurley said the archbishop hoped to “push for the U.S. and the Church to have a very strong voice in meeting religious persecution head on.”

Shea, who also brings a solid background of fighting religious persecution to the committee, was most recently involved in the case of an American woman jailed in Vietnam last fall for distributing religious tapes and pens with crosses on them. The U.S. State Department treated the detainment of Man Thi Jones as a criminal case, said Shea. But she and other religious freedom advocates maintain the arrest amounted to a human rights violation. Jones was released last month after paying a $1,000 fine for disseminating religious material and for starting a charity without government permission.

Shea said threats to religious freedom come from the ideological intolerance found primarily in communist countries including China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba. Militant Islamist movements are also persecuting Christians in the Sudan, Pakistan, Arabia, Egypt and Algeria, she said.

In the quest for religious liberty, the USCC has placed China, the Middle East and the Sudan on its high priority list, said Carr. The conference opposes Most Favored Nation status for China until human rights conditions are corrected, reported Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, director of the USCC's Office of International Justice and Peace.

Father Christiansen said USCC strategies include letter writing campaigns and recruiting business people to educate their Chinese counter-parts about Church concerns. Interreligious dialogue, he added, is essential to establishing a unified front to religious persecution. He said that in Eastern Europe, an agreement between Catholics and Orthodox has led to a decrease in tensions in regions affiliated with the Moscow patriarchate.

When the committee meets, Shea and Argue are likely to reiterate proposals to change Immigration and Natural Services policy to make granting of religious asylum easier. Shea said other actions could be taken to ensure religious freedom. “Every opportunity should be exploited. We might envision a noisy protest or boycott,” she said.

Committee members also plan to continue fighting for religious freedom outside the confines of the panel. “If [the committee] doesn't work, we won't let this die,” said Argue.

Horowitz also projected action in the year ahead. “It could be a run-away committee,” he said, “running away from the State Department. Whatever happens in the committee, this movement has to raise the stakes.” He also anticipated “real legislative proposals” from the 105th Congress, but declined to elaborate on what those might be.

Committee members will also work to remove an old obstacle that Shea called “secular myopia.” “The Western elite is so used to thinking of Christians as persecutors, not the persecuted,” she said. “We're all part of the body of Christ. We're compelled to help people abroad.”

Liz Swain is based in San Diego, Calif.