As President Bush builds a worldwide anti-terrorism coalition, some of his staunchest supporters at home are raising serious questions about the United States’ new allies.
Religious conservatives have built an influential human rights movement over the last five years aimed at protecting Christians and other religious minorities overseas particularly in Muslim countries.
Since September 11, they have watched with alarm as Mr. Bush has befriended the very nations their movement has targeted, especially Sudan, a country activists see as among the worst persecutors.
Some American Muslims complain the anti-persecution movement is also anti-Islam, but the Bush administration has repeatedly insisted it will work to protect religious freedom wherever it is threatened.
Conservative activists are watching and waiting to see if the president keeps his promise.
“I fear since September 11, there’s been a policy trade-off, cooperation for terrorism,” said lawyer Nina Shea, a founder of the religious-rights movement and director of the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. “The Bush administration has gone soft.”
Miss Shea and others have been particularly upset by shifts in U.S. policy toward Sudan. The predominantly Muslim government has been fighting a 19-year civil war with its southern region, where Christianity and other religions dominate. About 2 million people have been killed.
In September, the United States also allowed the U.N. Security Council to lift sanctions against the African nation, which is on a U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism. The administration also publicly praised Sudan’s cooperation in the war.
Some U.S. economic sanctions remain in place, but a bill that would increase pressure on Sudan on the human-rights issue is stalled in Congress.
Those developments were especially disappointing to Christian activists, coming so soon after Sept. 6, when Mr. Bush named former Sen. John Danforth special ambassador to Sudan, a victory for the religious-freedom movement.
On Nov. 19, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family and others wrote a letter to Mr. Bush arguing that pressuring governments to end persecution should be a central goal of U.S. foreign policy. Ignoring the issue threatened the nation’s credibility abroad, they wrote.
“By rewarding and praising Khartoum [Sudans capital] at the very moment it is stepping up its bombing, starvation and literal enslavement of religious minorities, the U.S. appears to be willing to tolerate religiously based internal terrorism,” the letter read.
It wasn’t the first time these groups prodded Mr. Bush on human rights.
Nearly a year ago, when the new president began developing his foreign policy, conservatives signed a letter warning that Mr. Bush had failed to give enough importance to ending religious persecution and human-rights abuses in general.
“Sending that statement sent a signal to the Bush administration that they were going to be caught in a deadly political conflict not only from the left, but from their friends,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
The political movement has its roots in a 1995 opinion piece Mr. Horowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal, describing the persecution of Christians and making parallels with the historic oppression of Jews overseas.
No one responded, so Mr. Horowitz took a different approach. He wrote to Christian mission boards, joined with Miss Shea to hold meetings on global persecution of Christians and enlisted well-known conservatives such as Chuck Colson and William Bennett to join in their effort.
“We learned to ignore the national press and use the power of denominational newsletters and Christian radio to create prairie fires at the grass roots, so members of Congress would go home and people would say, ‘What do you think about the Sudan?’” said Mr. Horowitz, who is Jewish.
The campaign worked. The National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptists and other religious groups signed on. In 1996, evangelical churches organized the first annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
Two years later, the International Religious Freedom Act became law, creating an office of religious freedom in the State Department, which compiles an annual report on persecution. The law also established an independent, bipartisan panel on religious freedom.
Along the way, conservatives broadened their movement. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Roman Catholic leaders were early supporters. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was among those who signed the Nov. 19 Sudan letter to Bush.
“There is a potential for making religious persecution an issue with the mass public because so many American Christians are involved in supporting missionary work. Millions of dollars flow out of congregations,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio. “The White House may have to pay attention to these rumblings.”
The movement has had less success developing ties with the traditional human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, even though both sides have much in common, such as focusing on Sudan.
Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said each side views the other warily.
“The Christian communities have the stereotype that mainstream groups don’t care about the rights of Christians,” he said. “The mainstream groups have a stereotype that all [the Christians] care about is Christians.”
Ibrahim Hooper, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, believes there is also an anti-Muslim bias at work.
He acknowledged that some Muslim nations violate human rights, but sees Sudan as a “tragic situation with abuses on all sides.” He feels religious-solidarity leaders exploit the persecution issue to discredit Muslim governments and pave the way for more proselytizing overseas.
“One of their ultimate goals, from my thinking, is to defame Islam,” he said.
Miss Shea and Mr. Horowitz are working to reinvigorate their movement after the attacks, as they continue to draw attention to abuses by other nations, such as Pakistan, China and Vietnam. As part of the effort, they have a new message to wedge their issue onto the Bush administration’s post-September 11 agenda.
“Any country persecuting its own people is going to be exporting terrorism,” Mr. Horowitz said.