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Religious persecutions targeted

A coalition of political, religious and human rights groups that have often been at odds is now working to pressure the United States to help battle religious persecution around the world.

The effort has made allies of the Christian Coalition and human rights groups like Amnesty International. It has brought together Democrats like Reps. Tony Hall of Ohio and Nancy Pelosi of California with Republicans like Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia."This is not a partisan issue," said the Rev. William P. Fay, associate general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This is what it means to cherish the democracy we have, and within it, the religious person that we happen to be."

Moved by images of Buddhist nuns being tortured in Tibet and Christian women enslaved in the Sudan, the groups are pushing legislation that would end non-humanitarian U.S. aid to countries that practice religious persecution. It would also limit foreign trade with such countries.

About 150 supporters of the bill met for a one-day conference here Wednesday to plot legislative strategy. The legislation would apply equally to persecution of all faiths.

But while sweeping in its ideals, the bill in its present form is somewhat limited in its specifics. Foreign trade would be banned only with the "narrowly defined" governmental sub-units that directly carry out persecution offenses. The bill would cover only countries that deal with "hard-core evil," defined as those engaged in "widespread and ongoing acts of abduction, enslavement, killing, imprisonment, forced mass relocation, rape, crucifixion or other forms of torture."

The State Department would be charged with monitoring such offenses worldwide. The president, following notice to Congress, would have discretion to waive the sanctions if, in his or her judgment, the curbs would do more harm than good.

Eric Rubin, a White House spokesman, said President Clinton shares the goals of the bill's sponsors but has serious reservations about the original draft. Rubin said the administration viewed the measure as a "blunt instrument that was more likely to hurt than help victims of persecution and could undermine U.S. efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in places like the Middle East and South."

Rubin said White House officials had not studied proposed revisions to the bill and could not comment on them.