Lunch with a concentration camp survivor made Rep. Chris Smith a human rights champion

By Mark A. Kellner – The Washington Times – Thursday, February 1, 2024

Rep. Chris Smith’s journey as a campaigner for human rights and religious liberty began decades ago in a small New Jersey eatery over a meal with a Holocaust survivor.

Mr. Smith‘s father ran a wholesale sporting goods business next to a Jewish delicatessen in the small town of Colonia, New Jersey. One day his father took him to lunch with a man who “used to come into a Jewish delicatessen near our store, and he was a Holocaust survivor. I was 12 years old, we sat down and we talked for two hours,” the congressman said.

“He showed me his [concentration camp] tattoo, the ink numbers,” recalled Mr. Smith, now 70. “When he talked, I just sat there and said, ‘How could anybody do that to someone?’”

When the Republican lawmaker came to the House in the “Reagan revolution” of 1980, Mr. Smith immediately got to work on behalf of “refuseniks,” Jews living in the then-Soviet Union who were refused permission to emigrate to Israel. Those Soviet Jews were subjected to antisemitism, arrest and imprisonment.

“The first thing I got involved with was a speech on the floor for the refuseniks,” he said. “I went to Moscow, Leningrad with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, in January of 1982, and what an eye-opener that was to see the hatred, the antisemitic hatred, that was government-sanctioned, and government promoted.”

Mr. Smith said that early activism motivated him to support the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and an ambassador-at-large post covering the issue at the State Department. Though President Bill Clinton’s administration opposed the matter, the chief executive came around and signed the bill, likely to avoid a veto override, he said.

He said the landmark law has motivated faith groups to lobby the U.S. government — and many of the 1,300 attendees at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2024 on Wednesday, in fact, had spent the day before the event’s opening visiting congressional offices.

But, he added, the law is “not always enforced the way I would like. I have a big concern about Nigeria. I’ve been there many times. I went to bombed-out churches in Jos with Archbishop [Ignatius Ayau] Kaigama.”

The Biden administration dropped the “Country of Particular Concern” designation for Nigeria that had been imposed by the Trump administration. The potential for sanctions against the African nation over persecution evaporated, but little progress was seen on the ground. Indeed, the slaughter of Christians by the forces of Boko Haram and Fulani farmers continues; more than 200 Nigerian Christians were killed on Christmas Eve 2023, the congressman said.

“The government is not, I say again, not doing what it could do to mitigate and hopefully stop these horrible slaughters that are occurring,” Mr. Smith said.

He said Secretary of State Antony Blinken “was just there a couple of days ago, offered condolences for the 200 plus people who were slaughtered on Christmas Eve. And that’s it.”

The congressman has introduced a resolution calling on the department and President Biden “to reassert the CPC designation” on Nigeria, where “there are a lot of sanctions that will really make a difference if you use them.”

Mr. Smith’s religious liberty and human rights interests cover the globe — a result of that long-ago encounter with that Holocaust survivor and his Catholic upbringing, he said.

He has held hearings on the plight of Uyghur Muslims, an ethnic and religious minority subjected to forced labor and “reeducation” in what are essentially concentration camps in China. The recent case in Nicaragua of Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 18 priests imprisoned by the Ortega regime also drew his attention and a hearing.

These sessions get media attention, but aren’t the kind of activity prone to generating the fundraising many politicians aim their committee work at. There’s no cash-rich human rights  “lobby” waiting to write checks.

“I don’t do it for that,” Mr. Smith said when asked about the impact of his work on campaign coffers.

“It’s my faith. I’m a Catholic, and from my family, we were always raised to revere the teachings of Jesus Christ. … We are strong believers. We don’t wear it on our sleeves to get elected, but we are very strong believers in constantly seeking wisdom from God, what do we do? And how do we do it?”

Lunch with a concentration camp survivor made Rep. Chris Smith a human rights champion – Washington Times