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World: U.S. Lawmakers To Champion Religious Prisoners

Washington, 20 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) believes the U.S. Congress is one of the most powerful tools available for relieving the suffering of victims of human rights abuses throughout the world.

So he and a group of his colleagues have formed the Religious Prisoners Congressional Task Force to help men and women jailed for their religious beliefs.

In a speech on the floor of the Senate on Thursday, Brownback urged every member of the Senate and every member of the House of Representatives to join the task force and take part in what he says is its unique strategy to combat religious oppression.

Members of the task force will, said Brownback, "adopt" one or more religious prisoners and work for their release, or at the least an improvement in their condition.

Brownback said that religious freedom "is the most fundamental of human rights." Yet, he says national governments, "routinely breach this right and wrongfully silence peaceful minority faith communities and jail their leaders."

Brownback was joined in establishing the task force by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), Congressman Joseph Pitts (R-Pennsylvania) and Congressman Tony Hall (D-Ohio) earlier this week. They would like all 100 Senators and all 435 members of the House to join them.

Brownback said religious oppression is a critical problem. He told the Senate that "fully one half of believers are restrained by oppressive governments," and he said one third of the world's believers are "forced to meet clandestinely in China, Iran and many other places." The senator said the campaign against religious belief is waged internationally, "particularly by communist and ultra-nationalist governments."

Brownback said Congress has what he called a legal mandate to act on behalf of prisoners of conscience. He said appeals will not be restricted to any particular faith. The task force, he said, will respond to any injustice involving any faith.

The idea, said Brownback, is for members of Congress to select the case of a prisoner or prisoners and then actively appeal for better treatment for that prisoner.

Brownback said he has been told by leading international human rights activists that appeals by the U.S. Congress do carry weight with oppressive, governments.

Said Brownback: "When congressional members petition government leaders, the lives of religious prisoners change...such intervention improves prison conditions, stops torture and most importantly results in prisoner releases."

He said the U.S. congressional task force would also engage in joint protests with members of the British Parliament who have formed a similar organization.

Brownback said there are thousands and thousands of religious prisoners. He said that, "most are nameless and lack advocates." But he said they are the contemporary equivalents of the renowned Soviet human rights campaigner, the late Andrei Sakharov, and the Nobel laureate writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent more than 20 years in exile before returning to Russia two years ago.

Religious prisoners, said Brownback, deserve the help of members of Congress no matter where the prisoners are.

He said the first action of the U.S. task force will be on behalf of prisoners in the Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and China and will involve not only persecuted Christians, but Tibetan Buddhists and members of the Bahai faith.