In the Longworth House office building on Capitol Hill, on an unusually warm April afternoon, Nina Shea is moving to the drumbeat of a southern Sudanese Shilluk tribal dance. The typically reserved, influential director of the Center for Religious Freedom (CRF) at Freedom House is with a broad coalition of clergy, congressional representatives, human-rights activists, and Sudanese war survivors. They are celebrating the January signing of Sudan's comprehensive North-South peace agreement.
Shea and the coalition she helped assemble have been pushing for agreement for more than a decade. The 22-year genocidal jihad waged by the ruling National Islamic Front against Sudan's predominantly Christian and animist South has ended. But Shea and others say they will not rest until peace is restored to Darfur, where a second genocide rages on.
Drawing attention to religious persecution around the globe is something Shea has learned to do well. She is described by her friends as forthright and direct, and by her critics as "shrill." No matter. Her reputation as an intensely focused, doggedly persistent advocate of religious freedom led Newsweek magazine to credit her with "making Christian persecution Washington's hottest cause."
Shea has been championing religious freedom and decrying human-rights violations since her days as a young lawyer with the International League for Human Rights in New York. She is currently vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The commission advises the U.S. government on religious freedom around the globe. It is a job the savvy, 40-something, blonde mother of three has embraced with gusto. She has become an increasingly prominent player in promoting religious freedom as a top U.S. foreign policy objective.
"I think Nina Shea is one of the most influential people on human rights and religious liberty there is," said Faith McDonnell, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy's Religious Liberty Program. McDonnell has worked closely with Shea on Sudan and other fronts. "She speaks with authority and has influence with people who are rather important themselves. Anyone who hears Nina understands that this is someone who knows what she's talking about."
Shea served on the Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad to the U.S. Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright) from 1997 to 1999, and meets regularly with the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom, led by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn. Colleagues describe her as a go-getter who never shrinks from opportunities to press her issues. In uscirf meetings with President Bush, Shea will try to "buttonhole him and use the time to raise the issues she thinks need to be talked about," says colleague Paul Marshall. Marshall, senior fellow at the CRF and author of Their Blood Cries Out, a bestselling survey of religious persecution, adds, "She's not overawed by people."
"Nina is a real visionary with a passion for truth and justice," says international Christian humanitarian Baroness Caroline Cox. "She's led a robust campaign to draw attention to peoples' suffering in the Sudan, and her approach is both principled and powerful."
Shea's approach is to bring together politically diverse coalitions of churches, religious groups, and civil-rights organizations to press for government action. It has proven effective. In 1998, Shea, McDonnell, Michael Horowitz, and others began laying the groundwork for the Sudan Coalition, a loosely affiliated network of human-rights groups, students, and religious organizations. It later joined forces with the Sudan Campaign, a group launched by African American civil-rights leaders, to pass the 2002 Sudan Peace Act.
"I'd attribute to Nina the perseverance to keep pulling people together until we could get things passed," McDonnell says. "Nina is very driving, very focused," Marshall adds. "This is a person who wants to get something done and is going to push and shove and make sure it does get done."
Shea spent her early years in Yardley, a small Pennsylvania town on the Delaware River. Her father, a dentist, was Catholic; her mother, Presbyterian. Asked if her driven personality was evident then, Shea chuckles: "My mother tells me I was docile as a child."
Shea first became interested in human rights while attending Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, a community service-oriented high school in Princeton, New Jersey. One early inspiration was one of her teachers: Barbara Boggs Sigmunddaughter of the powerful Democratic Louisiana Representatives Hale and "Lindy" Boggs.
During her student days at Smith College, Shea says she was a "lapsed Catholic" and "moderate liberal." She majored in economics, then obtained her law degree from American University in Washington, D.C. She then headed to New York to work as program director for the International League for Human Rights, established by ACLU founder Roger Baldwin.
In the early 1980s, the League sent her to El Salvador, where clandestine death squads were abducting and killing people by the thousands. "I was investigating disappearances and talking to families whose loved ones were being tortured and killed," Shea says. "It was a very intimidating environment." On one prison visit, a notorious police official told Shea and her delegation to step inside a dark cell. He locked the door, then after an appropriate pause, jokingly opened it. The experience impressed upon Shea the protections her American citizenship afforded. "We could speak out when the locals could not," she says. But she still recognized what she was doing was risky: When she then went to Nicaragua to talk to civic leaders to uncover human-rights abuses, she knew she was followed by the secret police.
In Latin America, she started to become disillusioned with what she calls her colleagues' "double standard on human rights."
"In my secular days, I really believed that the human-rights movement was altruistic," says Shea, a liberal Democrat when she joined the League. "Then I saw that when governments on the Left started abusing human rights, human rights were no longer important." The last straw came when superiors began pressuring her to suppress her report on Sandinista atrocities. "I decided to dig in," Shea says. "Somebody had to stand up for these principles."
Witness from a Garbage Dump
During these years, her spiritual life began to blossom. For a long period of about 15 years during college, law school, and at her job with the International League for Human Rights, she "really did not know any believing Christians," Shea says.
During her work in the '80s for the League, Shea began meeting Christians whose lives she describes as "a great witness." Shea recalls one Pentecostal preacher in the Dominican Republic living in a shack next to a garbage dump. "He was there, in the garbage dump, amidst the open sewers, trying to give dignity to people's lives," Shea says.
In Haiti, Shea met a Dutch priest and former classics professor who was starting schools and soup kitchens in "the worst slum of the Western world."
"They were living under constant threat, constant violence, and they were doing it out of love," she says. "It had a powerful impact on me. I saw this repeated in country after country."
What resulted was an "intellectual awakening" where the importance of religion, worship, and the role of religious figures became clearer, Shea says. "It was a rational commitment I made before becoming a Christian.
"I recognized there was something very powerful here, something that I found deeply attractive. At the same time, I observed prejudice in the secular culture against the people I found deeply heroic. Because of their love for others, these people were being persecuted, marginalized, and ignored.
"I started seeing how churches were crushed, and how religious people of all faiths were being crushed." She watched in Nicaragua as communists tried to manipulate the churches as they did in Eastern Europe. "They were replacing the priests with Marxist liberation priests.
"This was a powerful witness to me. It provoked a reckoning within me about what life was about and whom I admired." In addition, the fact that "these people were often dismissed by the press and human-rights groups" proved a powerful motivator. Aside from a few Jewish groups, "no one was speaking out on behalf of persecuted religious figures," Shea says. "Certainly no one was speaking out for persecuted Christians. Something had to be done."
Shea turned her attention to the persecuted Christian church. "It jolted me into learning more about my faith as an adult. I really hadn't learned the Catholic Church's philosophy of life. I didn't learn it in school. I started delving into it as an adult." A "gradual spiritual awakening" followed, which Shea says was strengthened by marriage, the birth of her children, and the death of her father. "It pushed me deeper into my faith. Going back to the church as an adult gave me a deeper understanding of the Christian faith."
In 1986 Shea married prominent conservative writer and editor Adam Meyerson. Her devotion to their three young sons has meant establishing clear priorities with regard to work and family. Described as "a mother bear" when fighting for human rights, Shea is equally jealous about protecting her family time. She schedules her workday so she can regularly drop off and pick up her boys at school.
During this time of spiritual renewal, Shea prayed that God would send her people she could work with in a professional setting to help her explore her faith on a daily basis. One person God sent was Humberto Belli, a Nicaraguan newspaper editor and former Marxist and Sandinista collaboratoruntil his conversion to Christianity. Shea says, "Once I began working with Mr. Belli, I felt like my prayers were beginning to be answered. Now I have people I can share my faith with every day."
Together, Shea and Belli formed a new human-rights organization to look at religious freedom around the world. The Puebla Institute, as it was first known, began reporting on Latin America and other areas where religious freedoms were under attack. In the 1990s, they focused on China. "We were one of the first groups to report on religious persecution in China," Shea says. "After Mao Zedong died, millions were turning to Christianity and being persecuted for it."
In 1995 the Puebla Institute came under the auspices of Freedom House and was renamed the Center for Religious Freedom. One of its first major undertakings was a January 1996 conference Shea organized. It brought in witnesses from around the worldleaders and pastors of the major Christian movements, churches, and denominationsto talk about what was happening in the Middle East, China, and elsewhere. This was the first such meeting of its kind. The conference produced a statement of conscience, published by the National Association of Evangelicals and endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention and mainline groups. It expressed "deep concern for the religious freedom of fellow believers, as well as people of every faith," and urged the U.S. government to "speak out against reigns of terror now being plotted and waged against Christians."
Shea then worked with and alongside congressional representatives, human-rights activists, and faith-based coalitions to pass legislation that would institutionalize the statement's principles. The result was the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
In her 1997 book, In the Lion's Den, Shea wrote, "The shocking, untold story of our time is that more Christians have died in this century simply for being Christians than in the first 19 centuries after the birth of Christ."
Closing the Mouths of Lions
Shea has been advocating relentlessly for human rights for decades now, yet her passion is as palpable as everso much so that colleagues must edit some of her "stronger adjectives" from CRF reports. Her outspoken advocacy has provoked the ire of foreign and State Department officials alike. "She is so willing to speak out and tell the truth that sometimes the diplomats don't like it," McDonnell says.
During an address by Shea at Catholic University Law School, a member of the audience identified himself as a representative from the Sudan embassy; he also said he was from the state of Nuba, where the pro-government imams had issued a fatwa against insurgents. "Nina took him on," McDonnell recalls. "She basically said, 'You are from Nuba, and the government of Sudan has tried to totally wipe out your people! How dare you sell out your own people!'"
Asked where she finds her ongoing passion, as well as her strength during times of discouragement, Shea says, "As a Catholic, I find my strength at Mass and in sharing in the Eucharist with other believers, but another great source of strength is Daniel 6:22." It's a verse that inspired the title of her book. "I love that image of God sending his angel to close the mouths of the lions," she says.
Another favorite passage is the parable of the Good Samaritan. "Ravi Zacharias opened my eyes to another meaning of that story. The Jews who passed by the mugged person were on their way to pray in the temple. And they passed the victim by without helping him. Presumably, they were going to pray for him, but they weren't going to do anything themselves. It was the Samaritan who stopped and helped. I think what Jesus was sayingwhat Zacharias points outis that action is also the moral imperative. The priests in that parable took the road of prayer alone, but the Samaritan who stopped extended the love of Christ.
"It means we need to do those things that help others, out of love for Christ. We are called to act." The parable, Shea says, "is a moral imperative to act."
Sheryl Henderson Blunt is senior news writer for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See also today's sidebar, "Subverting Dignity: Nina Shea on the greatest threat to human freedom today."
Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom has more information on the organization and its work.
Brief biographical sketches on Shea are available from National Review (alt.), the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom.
Shea's In the Lion's Den: Persecuted Christians and What the Western Church Can Do About It is available at Amazon.com and other book retailers.
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