At a time when some members of Congress are more focused on the U.S. economy and other national matters, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) continues his decades-long crusade for human and religious rights. His first book, Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Global Human and Religious Rights, details his work for those who have no voice.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1980, he has represented Virginia for 16 terms. During much of his tenure, he has brought national and worldwide attention to persecution in such far-flung places as China, Sudan, Ecuador, Kabul, Romania, Tibet and the former Soviet Union.
Wolf has also been active in presenting bills before Congress in support of human and religious rights. This summer, the House passed legislation sponsored by Wolf and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) to create a special envoy at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. That bill is now before the Senate.
In October, the House approved reauthorizing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a 1998 creation of the Wolf-sponsored International Religious Freedom Act. The Senate has yet to act on this issue as of late October.
Called a “modern-day William Wilberforce” by Chuck Colson in his book’s introduction, Wolf has seen firsthand the effects of human and religious right violations. The Christian Post recently spoke with Wolf about Prisoner of Conscience and his support of unpopular causes.
CP: Why do we as Americans tend to ignore human and religious right violations in other countries?
Wolf: I think it’s only lately that that’s become the case. The model for dealing with this issue is President Ronald Reagan. In 1983, Reagan spoke to the National Association of Evangelicals and gave that classic speech where he called the Soviet Union the evil empire. All during the Reagan administration, Secretary of State George Schultz had meetings in the American embassy in Russia with the refuseniks and dissidents. Another example is how Reagan took away Most Favored Nation trading status to Romania for its persecution of the church. This used to be a bi-partisan issue with both political parties really interested, but I think over the last several years, interest has decreased.
CP: Chuck Colson calls you in the book’s introduction the “Patron Saint of Unpopular Causes.” Why are human and religious rights unpopular?
Wolf: That’s hard to say. Human and religious rights used to be thought about a lot. It was a dominant issue in the 1980s. There are probably several reasons. People tell me it’s the economy. Things are tough in the United States and people tend to look inward.
When you look at what’s taking place, there is perhaps more persecution of people of faith now than anytime I can remember. For example, Christians in Iraq are having a tough time. In Egypt, 26 Coptic Christians were recently killed and yet we have given $50 billion-plus to the Egyptian government. If you look at China, American businesses do business there, but you have Catholic bishops in jail or under house arrest, you have Protestant ministers in jail or under house arrest. Nobody seems to say anything, and I don’t know why.
Nobody said anything about Rwanda and today it’s Sudan, where Africans are being killed, but you don’t know anything about it. Perhaps it’s also because lot of the news media have drawn down their international reporters because of budget cuts. There could be a lot of reasons, and I don’t know what the exact reasons are but the end results are that interest in human and religious rights is not that predominant.
CP: What was the catalyst that spurred you to take up the cause of global human and religious rights?
Wolf: In 1984, during the famine in Ethiopia, Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) asked me to go there with him. I ended up spending the night at a camp there and I saw the women with their kids – it was pretty horrific. In 1985, I accompanied Tony to Romania with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). In Romania, we went into churches and synagogues, and people put notes in our hands about relatives in jail. In the 1980s, Bucharest was darker and evil than any place. Nicolae Ceausescu, head of Romania’s communist party, was an evil person. Those trips are the kind that you can’t get what you saw out of your system. When you read about it, it’s different from when you’re there, where you can feel it and taste it and touch it. Those two trips were kind of the catalysts that got me interested in this issue.
CP: How does your faith inform your views on human and religious rights?
Wolf: My faith informs it a lot because it’s kind of a command to help the oppressed, like it says in Ecclesiastes 4:1. William Wilberforce’s faith got him to abolish the slave trade in England. Martin Luther King Jr. took on segregation because of his faith.
Up until a few years ago, many churches used to have a religious rights Sunday. They would bring in somebody from China and different countries to talk about what the conditions are there. But that’s gone now.
Reagan said the words in the Constitution in the Bill of Rights were a covenant with the entire world. That means they were not just the words for the people in Philadelphia in 1787 when the Constitution was ratified, but they were for the people in Tiananmen Square in 1989 who had the Statue of Liberty and other symbols of freedom.
CP: How have your revelations of human and religious right violations helped those being persecuted?
Wolf: It always helps. Every dissident told me that when people advocate for them it improves conditions. If you’re a dissident in prison and people start sending letters to the government or even to the commandant of the camp, your life gets better. Dissidents in China have told me that, dissidents in Tibet have told me that. It always improves their life. Sometimes it helps them get out of prison, or it can mean they are not beaten as much in prison, or they get a little more food. Always stand with them because it really makes a big difference.
CP: What do you hope to accomplish with Prisoner of Conscience?
Wolf: I hope that this would be a major issue, that somebody would read it and say this is really important. That they would write their congressman, senators and president encouraging them to support human and religious rights. I would hope that it would motivate people to speak out to churches and to adopt prisoners.
CP: What can the average American do to support global human and religious rights?
Wolf: They can do a lot. Number one, they can pray. My book has a story about how an Eastern European woman came up to me at a restaurant in 1990 and asked me why communism fell. I gave her the standard Republican answer, that it fell because Ronald Reagan put in the cruise missiles, etc. She said, “No, no no. That helped, but it fell because millions of us have been praying for the fall of communism.” I thought, “Oh, my goodness, she was right.”
Number two, you can work with groups like Human Rights Watch, Voice of the Martyrs or Open Doors. You can adopt a prisoner, have your church write them. You can have a religious freedom Sunday and bring people in to educate the congregation. The church can advocate. Right now, I worry sometimes because the church has been quiet on this issue. You can write your congressman and your senators. You can write the president. There’s really a lot that can be done. It all begins one at a time.