Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: The lion that roars at Germany purrs at China

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Charles W. Colson, former special counsel to Richard Nixon, served a prison term for his role in the Watergate scandal. He now heads Prison Fellowship International, an evangelical Christian ministry to the imprisoned and their families. Contact Colson via e-mail at 71421.1551(at)

UNDATED _ Americans dedicated to worldwide religious freedom got some good news last week. The Clinton administration finally rose from its slumbers to take a firm step on behalf of a persecuted religious minority, even to the point of publicly criticizing a major trading partner in laudably stark terms.

Anyone familiar with religious persecution might automatically assume that the administration was seriously taking up the cause of Tibet, or finally riding to the rescue of persecuted Christians in China, Vietnam, East Timor, or the Middle East, where thousands of believers have faced harassment, torture, and in some cases murder.

Such an assumption would be natural, but wrong.

The objects of the administration’s concern are members of the Church of Scientology. It is Germany’s poor treatment of this unusual group than has provoked the administration’s well controlled ire.

This may leave some people scratching their heads. Of course, the persecution of any religious minority _ or any other law-abiding minority, for that matter _ is an outrage and beyond the pale of civilized governance. Church members have been barred from joining the ruling Christian Democratic party, and Scientologists are occasionally fired from their jobs and denied membership in business and civic organizations.

Bad as that is, however, these woes in no way compare to the plight of other religious minorities, especially Christians. So why this high level concern? Because an influential group of the president’s supporters have taken up the cause. Those of us with wider persecution concerns would be wise to closely consider their modus operandi.

Church officials quickly enlisted actors Tom Cruise, his wife Nicole Kidman, John Travolta and other prominent church members to draw attention to the German problem. This included a Jan. 16 newspaper advertisement in the form of an”open letter”to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that drew analogies to Nazi-era Germany.

The signatories included celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Stone and Larry King.

Of course, the comparison to Naziism is inane and ridiculous, and in fact downplays the true horror of Germany’s past. Thankfully, State Department spokesman Larry Burns said as much.

Yet the campaign had its desired effect. Criticism of the persecution of Scientologists, who many consider are swept up into a mind-control cult, is now part of America’s foreign policy.

The Clinton administration was brutally frank in its criticism, lashing Germany for its”campaign of harassment and intimidation”against Scientologists and asking that it not”prosecute people for wrong thinking,”a message with a particular sting when aimed at the former Olympus of racial, religious, and political intolerance.

Germany disagrees, of course. Its defense, summed up in a position paper, is highly critical of this 40-year-old brainchild of the late science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard:”a greedy, cult-like organization, built on pseudo-science,”in which”membership can lead to psychological and physical dependence, to financial ruin and even to suicide.” Regardless of the merit of such criticism, religious persecution has no place in democratic nations. So let us hope Germany takes a hint and finds better things to do with its nervous energy.

Similarly, one would hope that the administration will now broaden its concerns to other cases of persecution, especially the People’s Republic of China. Last September, the Senate and House unanimously adopted a resolution which said, in part, that”Christians in China are now experiencing the worst persecution since the 1970s”and that in recent months,”eight Chinese Christian leaders were beaten to death by Chinese authorities simply because of their religious activities.” So far, the lion that roars at Germany only purrs at China.

In fact, the administration has made it clear that its China policy will not be held hostage to any one issue, among the most contentious of which is human rights. Part of the reason is pressure from American corporations that fear too much talk of dungeons will hurt business.

But another reason is that the administration has gotten what amounts to a free political ride.

It is not typical for any American leader, religious or political, to point to Scientology as a source of insight. But this church has reminded us of the value of concerted political action.

American Christians, many of whom have bought into the idea that they should stay far from the political fray, have this to learn from the heirs of L. Ron Hubbard: Do not be silent. Until they step forward with protests of their own, their co-religionists will rightly feel forsaken.