Congressman Frank Wolf is the author of Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Global Human and Religious Rights, written with Anne Morse. It is a chronicle of some of the human-rights journeys the northern Virginia congressman has been on and battles he’s fought with colleagues around the world. Representative Wolf talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about his travels and his stutter.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why would you go to all of these far-off dangerous places — Sudan, war-torn Afghanistan not long after September 11 — often against the wishes of the State Department?
REP. FRANK WOLF: I think if you vote to send young men and women to war, as I had done with Afghanistan and Iraq, you have an obligation to see how things are going. As far as the other trips are concerned, there are times when, if you hear something bad is happening, you have to go. I went on my trips to Romania and to the prison camps of the former Soviet Union because I felt there was a need to go. Same thing with my trips to Sudan and Chechnya.
Even when the State Department gives you an okay to go somewhere, you can’t get a real feel for what’s going on by just flying in for several hours. To learn what’s really going on, you need to get out and spend time with the people of Sudan or Ethiopia or Romania for a few days. On one of my trips to Iraq, I went in connected to a nongovernmental organization and not as a U.S. congressman. We were in a huge traffic jam one day,without any security, and it was a pretty scary situation.
When I wanted to go to Tibet, since the Chinese government didn’t like me, they refused to give me a visa. So I got a new passport identifying myself as a tourist instead of a diplomat, and applied for a visa through the Chinese consulate in Chicago, describing myself as a lawyer, which is perfectly true, and traveled to Tibet as part of a trekking group. The International Campaign for Tibet set me up with someone who spoke fluent Tibetan, but because he was a Westerner, and Caucasian, the Chinese government didn’t pay any attention to him; they had no idea he spoke Tibetan. So we were able to wander around Tibet for several days, without Chinese minders, talking to ordinary people, who were eager to talk to us and tell us how bad things were under Chinese rule — about relatives being tortured in prison because they’d been caught with a picture of the Dalai Lama, for instance.
LOPEZ: You praise Ronald Reagan for his relations with Congress. Is that a rare thing, in your experience?
REP. WOLF: Yes, it is, although Pres. George H. W. Bush also had a good relationship with Congress. He was really close to a lot of members since he had served in the House. And at times Clinton and Newt Gingrich worked closely together. But Reagan had a special gift for working with people. He worked closely with Tip O’Neill. We don’t see that kind of thing much today.
LOPEZ: You ask and answer a question about Ethiopia: “Will there ever be an end to the suffering of Ethiopians? Not unless something is done to develop long-term strategies to tackle the root causes of the food shortages — such as improving irrigation, drilling wells, developing drought-resistant crops, and teaching Ethiopian farmers about sustainable agricultural practices.” You add, citing the author of the recent book Dead Aid: “The best long-term solution, for Ethiopia and the rest of the developing world . . . is economic development, not aid.” So how do we do that?
REP. WOLF: The No. 1 problem there is they need land reform. We give aid to the Ethiopian government, but if people aren’t allowed to own their own land, they’re not going to invest in things like irrigation projects. That’s why our approach to foreign aid hasn’t worked. So we need to tie any aid we give to major land reform.
LOPEZ: What a privilege it must be to know the stories of people like Fr. Gheorghe Calciu of Romania. Did you feel an obligation to make sure people remember him, his courage, and his faithfulness?
REP. WOLF: Yes, he was a special person. You feel an obligation to raise their cases, as long as it doesn’t endanger them. There have been a lot of Father Calcius. Once we get involved with people like this, we never cut them off. We stay with them. I’m still meeting with Romanians I met on my trip in the Eighties. And just recently I met with the Iraqi Christians, who have been so terribly persecuted in recent years. Once we adopt an issue, we don’t put it down. We stay with it.
LOPEZ: Who are among the bravest you’ve met in your travels? I do keep thinking about what might have happened to your cab driver in Tibet.
REP. WOLF: Yes, he was a pretty brave guy. He knew the Chinese could throw him in prison for driving us around Lhasa, showing us where all the prisons were, letting us take pictures, and telling us about all the monks and nuns who had been dragged off to prison and tortured with electric cattle prods. We were worried about the police catching on to what he was doing, but he said what we were doing was too important to worry about his own safety.
I’ve met a lot of brave people. Those believers in Romania who came up to speak to us in front of the Securitate — they were extremely brave. The refuseniks I met with in the Soviet Union in the Eighties, prisoners who spoke out when I visited Perm 35, right in front of the KGB, knowing they were going to pay a price after I’d gone home. I think of the brave Chinese pastors and human-rights lawyers who tried to have dinner with me in Beijing, and were arrested. I recently met a guy whose father is director of security for Samaritan’s Purse, he’s living in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan where the Sudanese government is bombing every day.
Always, in the trouble spots in the world, there is some brave soul who rises up. Every time I go on a trip to a dangerous place, I pray for protection, and that no one connected with the trip will be harmed or killed. I pray this prayer a couple times every day, and that only good will come out of the trip.