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GROUP PUBLICIZING SORRY PLIGHT OF CHRISTIANS IN MANY NATIONS

IT'S possible to buy a Christian slave in southern Sudan for as little as $15.

Last year's going rate for parents who want to buy back their own kidnapped child was five head of cattle - about $400. A boy might cost 10 head.An exiled leader in Sudan's Catholic Bishops Conference reports that 30,000 children have been sold into slavery in the Nuba mountains. In six years, more than 1.3 million Christian and other non-Muslim people have been killed in civil war in Sudan - more than Bosnia, Chech-nya and Haiti combined.

"Sudan is characterized by the total or near complete absence of civil liberties," activist Nina Shea told a recent Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing. "In-dividual Christians, including clergy, have over the past few years . . . been assassinated, imprisoned, tortured and flogged for their faith."

The Sudan report went on, and the leader of Freedom House's Puebla program on religious freedom already had described horror stories from China, Vietnam, North Korea and Pakistan. She still had Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Islamic world left to discuss.

Americans are not seeing news reports about these tragedies or hearing preachers and politicians make urgent appeals for action. But that may change soon. A coalition of human rights activists and religious leaders - most of them evangelicals or, like Shea, Roman Catholics - is working overtime to politicize this issue before the November elections.

Last weekend, the South China Morning Post reported signs that a brutal crackdown was beginning on underground churches in northwest China.

Millions of Americans can expect to hear these two issues linked on Sept. 29, when leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) will urge member churches to observe "Persecution Sunday."

Efforts are under way to encourage Catholics to join in. "The pope has been a great leader on issues of religious freedom - it has been one of the hallmarks of his papacy," says Shea.

Meanwhile, many in government, media and mainstream religion have looked the other way while Christians have become one of the modern world's most persecuted minorities, says Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official who is working behind the scenes on this issue. His activity in behalf of the effort has led him to take a stance that angers many other Jews - claiming that evangelicals, and perhaps even Catholics, may become in the 21st century what Jews were in the 20th century.

"Christians - especially evangelicals - make great demons," says Horowitz. "Most people think of evangelicals as odd or even threatening. Obviously, they stand out in communist and radical Islamic cultures, and they're not the kind of people you can buy off with money and raw power, which are the stock in trade of thug regimes. . . . Meanwhile, our own political and media elites maintain a kind of quiet, sneering indifference, if not hostility, toward evangelicals," he claims.

"But more and more Christians are getting tortured and killed for their faith. That's the truth. I'll be d----- if I'm going to sit through another holocaust. Absolutely not. One was enough."

In January, the NAE released a blunt statement calling for specific U.S. government actions opposing persecution, including economic sanctions for offending regimes. The evangelicals complain that the State Department traditionally shuns persecuted Christians.

Behind the scenes, talks continue in an effort to make the issue a political one, working with both President Clinton and GOP challenger Bob Dole.