- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

Religion frightens a lot of people. Fundamentalist Christians frighten Jews. Jews frighten Arabs. Roman Catholics scare fundamentalists. In some small towns of the rural South, Baptists sometimes irritate Methodists.

Fundamentalist Muslims frighten everybody, even other Muslims. The Chinese are so provoked by the Falun Gong that they throw them in prison if they catch them breathing or doing push-ups.

But nobody says much about what governments do to believers. Yesterday the United Nations, having just completed a survey of religious practices in 25 nations, reported that religious extremism is an "ever-growing scourge."

The worst example, the U.N. investigators say, is Afghanistan, where the Taleban Islamist militia, "using religion as a political tool in the interests of power, have taken an entire society hostage." They found that this religious extremism is manifest with varying degrees of intensity in Egypt, Georgia (theirs, not ours), India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka."

"No single religion has a monopoly on religious extremism," Abdelfattah Amor, "special rapporteur" of the Commission on Human Rights, said in a 30-page report.

Perhaps not, but Mr. Amor's report, with the exception of Israel, cites only Muslim countries. It's not clear why Israel is on the list. Maybe it's because rigidly devout Orthodox Jews and the less observant and irreligious Jews have been known to shout at each other, often in barely civil terms. Or maybe it's an attempt to strike a phony moral equivalence.

The U.N. report details the continuing crackdown on Christians in China. The Beijing government, which is officially aggressively atheist, nevertheless examines the religious beliefs of others with Talmudic exactitude performed with the dedication of a backwoods deacon examining hymnbooks for evidence of shaped notes. The Chinese officials are looking for theological deviancy as an excuse to throw dissidents into a jail cell to rot until Judgment Day.

Nor is the aim of the United Nations necessarily to preserve religious freedom. Mr. Amor's report urges the General Assembly "to devote the fullest attention to religious extremism" and urges governments to "condemn the phenomenon unequivocally and combat it relentlessly in order to preserve the human right to peace."

The tone of his report seems to suggest that it's the religious folk who are the chief offenders, not squalid governments that oppress inconvenient belief. Bureaucrats usually get these things wrong. But victims they are, especially in a wretched place like Sudan, which Mr. Amor seems to have overlooked in listing the nations where persecution is most intense. Getting excited about these abuses is not fashionable.

One man who does make a lot of noise is A.M. Rosenthal, whose column used to appear in the New York Times, where he was a Timesman for more than a half century, as a reporter and foreign correspondent and finally as its top editor, maybe the best the newspaper ever had.

He became a columnist after he retired. He made so much noise about the persecution of the wretched and the poor, often the religious, mostly Christians, that the New York Times grew weary of it, and last year told him thanks for the memories, and goodbye.

Abe, whose column now appears on Monday in this newspaper, among others, was honored the other night at a testimonial dinner in New York, surrounded by a few of his friends and a lot of admirers, who attended out of affection and respect, no longer fear. James Earl Jones was the master of ceremonies and Barbara Walters introduced him. Abe was unrepentant.

He talked of the real victims. "These people hurt in almost every way a human being can," he said. "They hurt from hunger and filthy water and from bullet wounds and from amputations of healthy arms and legs and from slavery, literal slavery, no figure of speech, all to terrify the entire population and force into flight all who might give them any opposition. They hurt from the knowledge that these wounds and eternal pains are inflicted by their own police, soldiers and professional marauders, as the policy of the government supposed to protect them.

"Since Hitler, we Westerners like to say over and over never again. The gut responsibility for the horrors taking place will lie forever with the rulers of the countries. But those who make them powerful with money and guns in exchange for trade are in my mind equal sinners."

And so they are, but almost nobody wants to say that, or even to listen to someone else say it. That's why we've got a United Nations report, which gets it backward and upside down.

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