Very soon millions of people persecuted, arrested and tortured for their religion will find out whether the United States has finally confronted persecuting governments with a permanent searchlight and the threat of penalty.

The Senate will soon vote on a bill, fought out for almost two years, that creates a bipartisan congressional commission to investigate the persecution of religious minorities - numerically now heavily Christian.The commission will then recommend action to the president - from political denunciation to withholding arms and loans. The president will have 90 days to act - and if not, he must explain why.

It will not take long for the persecuted to find out how Congress voted and whether President Clinton has squelched his threat to veto because of his distaste for annoying the persecuting dictatorships.

Mouth to ear they will find out in underground Protestant and Catholic churches in China and in prisons run by expert torturers for those refusing to pray in government-run churches.

The persecuted will find out in the Sudan wilds and deserts where Christian and animist refugees starve or die under government attack. They will find out in Pakistani villages where Christian homes have been set afire. Or in the village south of Cairo, Egypt, where Coptic Christian clergy are sending frantic word that 1,000 Copts were tortured by Egyptian police.

I have visited prisons in Asia, Eastern Europe under communism and in the Soviet gulag. They were all designed to cut prisoners of conscience off from the world. But the prisoners somehow always knew who in the free world remembered them and what they did. Their knowledge became their embrace, instant and lasting.

It should have been simple - a bill monitoring religious oppression and exacting some price from the persecutors, not as high as a single hour in the cells.

The bill was eventually passed overwhelmingly in the House. It had been held up there and then blocked for months in the Senate by the huge lobbying funds of the China trade and intense White House pressure against the legislation. Supporters of the bill hope the president will feel that he has enough problems these days without also taking on millions of Americans fervently supporting it.

They organize days of prayer. They threaten not to vote for its congressional opponents come November. In both Congress and in the country, a coalition of conservatives, centrists and liberals have been working for it. It is one of those rare pieces of legislation that touches on how Americans see themselves, and American idealism.

Strangely, most of the press thought that was not a story, except occasionally, in articles brushing off the anti-persecution bill as conservative politics or killing it off in embarrassing premature obituaries.

Here are a few of those who led the fight for the bill against religious persecution. In Congress: Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Arlen Specter, who introduced the original bill; Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Chris Smith, Benjamin Gilman; retiring Sen. Dan Coats, former Sen. Bill Armstrong, Sens. Don Nickles and Joseph Lieberman, and the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, who gave the critical promise to call a vote before Congress adjourns.

Outside Congress: many evangelical groups; the National Council of Catholic Bishops; the Anti-Defamation League; the Episcopal Church; the International Campaign for Tibet; the National Jewish Coalition, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

There are deep differences among many of them. But they have in common the knowledge that hatred and persecution are contagious, and that so is the struggle against them. That is the particular value of the bill now to be judged by Congress and by the people in the cells.