After working in government for nearly 10 years, Jim Jacobson followed the path taken by many other Washington staffers: He joined forces with a private-interest group. In his new job, Jacobson still travels some familiar corridors on Capitol Hill. But his work also takes him as far away as China to deliver financial assistance to the families of pastors imprisoned by the Chinese government or to the Burma (Myanmar)-Thailand border to deliver medical supplies to Christian refugees fleeing the Burmese dictatorship.
Jacobson is president of the U.S. branch of Christian Solidarity International, a human rights and relief organization. In the United States, the group has lobbied for the religious persecution legislation introduced in Congress earlier this year. It also organized a petition drive to complain that the Clinton administration's new ambassador to China, former Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., had no familiarity before his appointment with the underground “house church” movement among Chinese Christians.
The organization was founded by a Swiss minister in 1977 to help persecuted Christians within the Soviet Union. Today, its British branch is working in Sudan to buy back young Christians taken as slaves by Muslim troops in the country's bloody civil war -- efforts that the U.S. branch helped publicize.
Christian Solidarity is one of a number of groups helping persecuted Christians around the world. Most of the groups have limited budgets and get little coverage in the secular media. But leaders of the U.S. campaign are working to bring them greater visibility. In their recent books on religious persecution, Canadian scholar Paul Marshall (Their Blood Cries Out) and Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House (In the Lion's Den), include lists of some of the organizations -- with addresses, telephone numbers and Web sites.
Many of the groups, like Christian Solidarity, began by helping Christians in communist countries. In recent years, some have either shifted or expanded their focus to Islamic countries. For example, the Rev. Keith Roderick, an Episcopal priest in Illinois, began working in 1982 with Aid to Soviet Christians but now heads an umbrella organization, the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights Under Islamization.
In the early days, some of the groups worked primarily to get Bibles into countries where distribution was restricted. Open Doors with Brother Andrew was founded by a Dutch minister who began smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s. “It's still an important part of what we do -- taking God's word into countries where there are not established channels for the importation of Bibles,” says Mike Yoder, director of communications for the group's U.S. branch. But Yoder acknowledges that more established Christian mission groups complain that Bible-smuggling “hurts what they're trying to do because it hurts above-ground activities.”
Some groups focus solely on an individual country. The Cardinal Kung Foundation monitors religious persecution in China. Others have an international focus. The largest is the World Evangelical Fellowship, in Singapore, which has spear-headed the campaign for the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
In contrast to better-known human rights and ecumenical church groups, these Christian organizations have a conservative political orientation. Jacobson worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations and for a conservative Republican senator. And the strongest proponents of the religious persecution legislation in Congress have been GOP lawmakers. But Roderick says the campaign is being “misconstrued” as a conservative movement.
“This is really a humanitarian issue,” Roderick says. “It should not be a liberal issue or conservative issue, a Republican or Democratic issue.”