last updated: March 07, 2007
- U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Vice Chair
- Hudson Institute: Director of the Center for Religious Freedom
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Nina Shea, a longtime supporter of interventionist U.S. policies dating back to the Contra wars in Nicaragua, is vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF). CIRF is a quasi-governmental body with roots in the U.S. Evangelical movement that, according to one scholar, aims to "'remoralize' American foreign policy" and "overturn the established—that is, liberal—order" (quoted in Stephen Kent, Marburg Journal of Religion, January 2001). The commission was formerly headed by Elliott Abrams, a convicted (and pardoned) Reagan administration official who is a special assistant to President George W. Bush on Mideast affairs. Shea also directs the Center for Religious Freedom, a research outfit long associated with the neoconservative-led Freedom House that was established in the mid-1980s under the original name of the Puebla Institute.
Although broadly focused on issues of human rights, Shea's work has primarily focused on religion, in particular on the persecution of Christians, a theme she has repeatedly used to push for U.S. intervention. In a 2001 article for the Washington Monthly , Joshua Green relates how in the mid-1990s Shea teamed up with Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official, in an effort "to put the issue of Christian persecution on the map." Green reported: "Horowitz, a Jewish neoconservative and a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, detailed the plight of persecuted Christians in Africa and the Middle East. He concluded by calling for intervention. 'For American Jews, who owe our very lives to the open door of the blessed land,' he wrote, 'silence should not be an option in the face of persecutions eerily parallel to those committed by Adolf Hitler.'" According to Green, a favorite Horowitz "sound bite" at the time was that "Christians are the Jews of the 21st century."
In 1996, Shea and Horowitz organized a conference titled the "Global Persecution of Christians." While earlier efforts to mobilize public opinion and elected officials around the issue had fallen flat, according to Green this conference was a watershed event, helping to bridge the divide between a number of U.S. political and religious groups. "To the surprise of many," wrote Green, "the issue of persecuted Christians captured the concern of evangelical Protestants. For churches like Grace Bible Church, which became active in the Christian solidarity movement five years ago, it complemented their own efforts to evangelize overseas ... As it spread among evangelicals, the movement also came to include conservative Jews and Catholics, Southern Baptists, and some of the more open-minded liberal activists like Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. But the issue seemed particularly appealing to evangelicals for whom Reagan conservatism was primarily a moral—rather than an economic—political movement. It was the involvement of this group, whose foot soldiers had turned abortion and school choice into national political issues, that helped popularize the issue of Christian persecution."
More recently, Shea has focused her efforts on the conflict in Sudan, which according to the rightist WordlNetDaily, she views as "part of the Khartoum regime's effort to Arabize and Islamicize the entire country" (WorldNetDaily, September 9, 2004). After then-Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before a Senate panel that the conflict in Darfur was a genocide in mid-2004, Shea told WorldNetDaily that she was "thrilled." She said: "I felt I was a witness to human-rights history ... This [is] the first time in history that a state that is party to the Genocide Convention has formally charged another state while the genocide is still in progress." However, she said she remained "uncomfortable" with the fact that the United States had not formally declared genocide regarding what WorldNetDaily termed "Khartoum's slaughter of 2 million Christians and animists."
While many analysts on both the left and the right regard the Darfur crisis as a genocide, some observers see Shea's efforts as politically driven, pointing to her track record of using human rights to push for military intervention. In the 1980s, her Puebla Institute, whose associates included the neoconservative Catholic theologian George Weigel, was repeatedly accused of collaborating with the Nicaraguan Contras. Former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro once said that Puebla Institute's founder, Humberto Belli, had a working relationship with the Contra leadership. This relationship, according to Chamorro, was fostered by the CIA when the Agency recommended that rebels exploit religious factors in their fight against the Sandinistas. The CIA-organized Contra Directorate suggested Belli to head the organization. Belli was a Catholic intellectual who had had disagreements with the Nicaraguan government.
For her part, Shea wrote articles in the mid- and late 1980s that espoused the idea that the policies of Nicaragua's Sandinista government amounted to religious persecution. She accused the Nicaraguan government of torturing religious opponents, although she acknowledged that it did not pursue the methods of death squad killings and disappearances common to El Salvador and Guatemala. Shea contended that the Sandinista government's stance toward Christians was one of manipulation of revolutionary sympathizers and restriction of opponents.
In a 2003 report about Sudan, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the efforts of CIRF—which the HRW pointed out was led by individuals (notably, Abrams and Shea) who were "conservative rather than liberal in outlook"—to get congressional support in the form of food aid for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA). The move was opposed by many human rights groups. According to HRW: "Several U.S.-based NGOs operating in Sudan, as well as Human Rights Watch, lobbied against the U.S. giving food aid to the SPLA, citing SPLA abuses, concern about NGO staff safety, and the need to preserve NGO neutrality. The SPLA denounced these NGOs. On February 10, 2000, President [Bill] Clinton wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress as required by the legislation, informing that 'at this time' he would not exercise his discretion to allow U.S. food aid to the SPLA." As part of her efforts in support of the SPLA, Shea lambasted the State Department in testimony before Congress for failing to recognize "t he basic fact that religious persecution is at the core of the conflict" (cited in the HRW, "Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights").
Like many neoconservatives, Shea has been sharply critical of Islam, often painting the religious group in broad strokes that fail to account for its many divergent tendencies. In 2005, for example, her Center for Religious Freedom published "Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques," an 89-page study of some 200 documents allegedly "disseminated, published, or otherwise generated by the government of Saudi Arabia and collected from more than a dozen mosques in the United States." The study concludes that a "totalitarian ideology of hatred" is being "mainstreamed within our borders through the efforts of a foreign government, namely Saudi Arabia."
Commenting on the study's findings, Daniel Pipes, President Bush's recess appointee to the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote in an op-ed: "The insidious Saudi assault on America must be made central to the (misnamed) war on terror. The Bush administration needs to confront the domestic menace that the Wahhabi kingdom presents to America. That means junking the fantasy of Saudi friendship and seeing the country, like China, as a formidable rival whose ambitions for a very different world order must be repulsed and contained" (New York Sun, February 1, 2005).
However, some observers argued that the center's study suffered from a problem endemic in much of the work produced by Freedom House (which at the time housed the center): it drew stark conclusions based on inadequate measurements. The center apparently rifled through the libraries of only a handful of mosques across the United States and then implied in its conclusions that what it found in these mosques applied generally to mosques throughout the country. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) opined in a review of the report: "The study clearly shows that these 15 American mosques included some very hateful books in [their] libraries. However, to suggest that all American mosques are filled with such publications is a stretch" (ISPU, February 4, 2005).
The ISPU also criticized the center for its "uncritical" support of the view that 80-85% of U.S. mosques are controlled by Wahhabis. The institute pointed to its own 2004 study of Detroit-area mosques, which found that only 6% of the city's mosque-attending population had salafist/wahhabi views and concluded that "the vast majority of American Muslims eschew extremist views." Although its study had received widespread attention and was released months before the Freedom House report, according to the ISPU, the Center for Religious Freedom failed to acknowledge or refer to its results. The ISPU concluded: "American-Muslim leaders must thoroughly scrutinize this study. Despite its limitations, the study highlights an ugly undercurrent in modern Islamic discourse that American-Muslims must openly confront. However, in the vigor to expose strains of extremism, we must not forget that open discussion is the best tool to debunk the extremist literature rather than a suppression of First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."
Although the Center for Religious Freedom (CRF) was formerly based at Freedom House, it appears to have moved to the Hudson Institute, a rightist think tank that has housed a number of neoconservative "scholars," including Irwin Stelzer, Richard Perle, Abrams, and Hillel Fradkin. Hudson's website features a biography of Shea, which says that she joined the institute in November 2006 as "senior fellow" directing the CRF. Hudson has also posted a number of articles by Shea, including a 2005 article called "The Real War on Christmas," in which Shea denounced the persecution of Christian communities throughout the world. She concluded: " Christmas is a time of great suffering for these communities. But as these persecuted Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus from their jail cells, within their house churches, or silently in their hearts, it is also a time of joy. For them, truly, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight" (Hudson Institute, December 19, 2005).
In 1997, Shea published In the Lion's Den: A Shocking Account of Persecution and Martyrdom of Christians Today and How We Should Respond. In a review of the book that appeared in the Middle East Quarterly, Daniel Pipes opined that the "slight" volume was "a major document in a growing movement." (The Middle East Quarterly is published by Pipes' Middle East Forum.) Pipes explained that Shea's "focus on two specific opponents of Christians makes this book relevant to the Middle East: 'It is anti-Christian persecution by communism and militant Islam that, because of their global sweep and virulence, poses the greatest threat'" (Middle East Quarterly, September 1997).
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Nina Shea Résumé
- Center for Religious Freedom: Director (before 2006, based at Freedom House; after 2006, at the Hudson Institute)
- Puebla Institute: Former Board President
- U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Vice Chair (since 1999)
- U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad: Member (1997-1999)
- U.S. Delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission: (1993 and 2001)
- Smith College
- American University Law School
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SourcesNina Shea Biography, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, http://www.uscirf.gov/about/commissioner_bios/shea.html.
Nina Shea Biography, Hudson Institute, http://www.hudson.org/learn/index.cfm?fuseaction=staff_bio&eid=SheaNina.
Center for Religious Freedom Staff, Freedom House, Web Archive, http://web.archive.org/web/20060518110500/http://www.freedomhouse.org/religion/about/staff.htm.
Stephen Kent, "The French and German Versus American Debate over 'New Religions,' Scientology, and Human Rights," Marburg Journal of Religion, January 2001.
Joshua Green, "God's Foreign Policy," Washington Monthly, November 2001.
Art Moore, "Global Jihad: U.S.: Islamist Carnage in Sudan Is 'Genocide,'" WorldNetDaily, September 9, 2004.
GroupWatch Profile, Puebla Institute, http://rightweb.irc-online.org/gw/2809.
Human Rights Watch, "Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights," 2003.
"Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques," Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, January 28, 2005.
Daniel Pipes, "Saudi Venom in U.S. Mosques," New York Sun, February 1, 2005.
Junaid M. Afeef, "Are American Mosques Promoting Hate Ideology?" Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, February 4, 2005.
Nina Shea, "The Real War on Christmas," Hudson Institute, December 19, 2005.
Daniel Pipes, "Book Review: In the Lion's Den," Middle East Quarterly, September 1997.