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Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is leading an effort by politicians and human rights groups to push the United States government to make the fight against Christian persecution a policy priority, including increased pressure on Iran to free American pastor Saeed Abedini.

In a bipartisan move, 23 U. S. senators have sent President Obama a letter asking him to step up pressure on Iran to release Abedini, held for being a Christian since September 2012.

In a statement, the American Center for Law and Justice said the letter is further evidence of the Senate’s commitment to Abedini’s freedom.

“Led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the letter calls Pastor Saeed’s transfer a potential ‘death sentence’ and urges President Obama to immediately speak out for his freedom. Now nearly a quarter of the U.S. Senate is urging action from the U.S. government on Pastor Saeed’s behalf,” ACLJ said.

In a recent speech, Paul said he believes there’s an all-out war against Christianity, and he wants the U. S. government to focus on fighting against persecution.

Paul told WND in an interview that the people can play a major role in bringing the issue to the government’s attention. He said his first goal is to raise awareness of the issue.

“It’s important to acknowledge that there is a problem. There have been many deaths in a couple of dozen of countries of Christians who were killed by followers of radical Islam,” Paul said.

“These Muslims are seeing the cause for their actions to be based on their interpretation of their religion.”

Paul said 9/11 was also a negative turning point in dealing with the reality of Islam’s role in persecution.

“After 9/11, I think there was an effort [to] downplay the role of religion in these acts of terrorism. It seems to be in surveys … that 10 to 15 percent of the people in these countries believe in violence against civilians. This makes a fairly significant number of Muslims, 50 to 100 million people worldwide who believe in violence,” Paul said.

He also pointed to a survey done after the 2005 subway bombing in London that found some 100,000 Muslims who believed that violence against civilians was justified.

“There was another 400,000 who didn’t completely condone it, but they were sympathetic. That’s worrisome,” Paul said. “It’s also something that Christians need to be concerned with and moderate members of Islam also need to speak out against this.”

Paul mentioned the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old girl shot by the Taliban.

“She’s not a Christian, but at the same time it’s worrisome that their religion would try to kill a girl who simply wants to go to school,” Paul said.

“So yes, we do need to speak out about it as a first step.”

The senator said he has focused on restricting foreign aid as one way to fight persecution.

“We also have some debate on money we send to foreign countries. I’ve tried on several occasions to have some amendments on foreign aid, to put restrictions on the foreign aid,” Paul said.

“We shouldn’t be sending foreign aid to countries that commit persecution against Christians, to countries who say that a Christian can be put to death for blasphemy or conversion,” Paul said.

He noted that as with Abedini in Iran, conversion from Islam to another religion is a major issue.

“If you’re a Christian who converted from Islam, the punishments are significantly more severe, more than if you were born as a Christian,” Paul said.

The senator, considered by many to be a rising star in the Republican Party and a potential candidate for the Oval Office in 2016, says the bipartisan letter is not the first Senate attempt to free Abedini.

“We’ve tried adding some language to some bills to provoke President Obama into action on Pastor Saeed Abedini, who in the last couple of days has been moved to an even more severe prison in Iran,” Paul said.

WND reported this week that Abedini has been moved to the Rajai Shahr prison, a more dangerous facility than the Evin Prison where he was previously held.

Paul also cited Asia Bibi, the Pakistani woman given the death sentence after being accused of blasphemy.

“We’re going to continue to speak out and hopefully it will do some good with the president,” Paul said.

American Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said he’s supportive of the senator’s efforts to advance religious freedom.

“Sen. Paul has been a strong partner with us in raising the visibility of religious persecution around the world. He was one of the leading authors of the Senate resolution calling for the release of American Pastor Saeed Abedini from an Iranian prison,” Sekulow said.

“He also devoted a large portion of his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference to the issue of religious persecution and the need for the United States to speak with unequivocal strength against this form of injustice. It is clear that Sen. Paul understands the critical role that the United States plays in advancing religious freedom in the 70 percent of the world that is under some form of religious persecution. He has proven to be a clear and compelling voice on the issue,” Sekulow said.

The senator said he’s now working on legislative initiatives to deal with religious liberty at home.

“Some of it is policy. At least with [military] chaplains that is a matter of policy and we do have some say-so,” Paul said.

“Most of my efforts have been on overseas, but there are instances here where as government grows bigger and bigger, that religious freedom will be imperiled,” Paul said. “Like Obamacare, where it’s inserted itself into our personal lives and our business lives, there are going to be questions.

“One of the discussions I’ve had with other Republican senators is whether there can be religious exemptions in the workplace. Sometimes they’ll exempt churches, but not exempt the church school,” Paul said.

“But if you belong to an evangelical church that has a school, I would think that you might consider it to be important that you teach traditional family values and traditional marriage,” Paul said.

“I think if all of a sudden you’re not allowed to do that, and you’re not allowed to employ people who believe in that, that’s a significant restriction of your freedom to express your religion,” Paul said.

There already are examples.

“There’s a case out in California where I know the pastor and they bought a secular school and made it their church school. They want the teachers to sign a statement of faith if they want to be teachers at the school,” Paul said.

“That seems pretty reasonable if you’re going to teach at a Christian school. Two teachers refused and are suing them to continue their jobs even if they don’t want to believe or teach the Christian mission of the school,” Paul said.

The case involved Calvary Chapel of Thousand Oaks, Calif., which bought the Little Oaks School and incorporated it into its church organization.

The church insisted that all teachers provide a pastoral reference and a statement of faith as a condition of continued employment. Teachers Lynda Serrano and Mary Ellen Guevara refused, and the case has gone to court.

Paul warns that these issues will continue to surface and threaten religious liberty.

“Things like these are going to continue to pop up and it’s important that we not give in and not say that we’re not going to defend the churches that own schools and hospitals,” Paul said. “The fights are just beginning but I plan on doing everything I can to make sure that your freedom to practice your religion is not offended by government policy.”

Former PLO operative Walid Shoebat has a different approach to persecution. Shoebat said his group is focused on the ground.

“I actually don’t think on these terms since it’s not an issue of ‘awareness’ that we are so focused on,” Shoebat said.

“There are many institutions that do good work on that, but we focus on actually doing the rescue missions. This in itself not only brings the issues to light, but brings urgency and the ability for the readers to be involved,” Shoebat said.

He hopes to directly involve the public in the issue.

“It’s one thing to bring awareness, but it’s another to allow the general public to play a role. This is what we do best,” Shoebat said.

“We are a grass-roots organization, that is to move the public into action.”

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