Conservative religious and human rights groups have launched a campaign to block China's largest petroleum company from listing an affiliated company on the New York Stock Exchange next month because of its oil investments in Sudan, an African nation under extensive U.S. sanctions because of its alleged support of terrorism and persecution of Christians.

Leaders of the campaign charge that the Chinese-backed Islamic fundamentalist regime there is committing "genocide" in its war against a Christian-led rebel movement in the south and encouraging a flourishing trade in non-Muslim slaves.

They have urged the Clinton administration to bar the Chinese company from the New York exchange, where it hopes to raise $5 billion in new capital through a public stock offering. They have already helped to persuade a number of big U.S. public pension funds to divest their holdings in a Canadian oil firm associated with the Chinese in the same oil project.

At least two of these pension funds are among the largest in the country and have also decided not to participate in the Chinese company's stock offering.

The pressure is coming just as the administration is launching its own lobbying effort to persuade Congress to approve China's admission into the World Trade Organization.

With the advice of American consultants, China National Petroleum Co., China's state-owned oil company, has taken a number of steps to blunt the campaign by U.S. religious and human rights groups. The most important was to create a separate company, PetroChina Co., that will operate only inside China while CNPC holds onto its overseas operations.

"They understood the sanctions issue here early on," said one investment banker familiar with CNPC's strategy for the public offering.

PetroChina will rank as China's largest company, holding 70 percent of the country's petroleum reserves and accounting for two-thirds of all its oil and gas production. It will become the world's fourth-largest publicly traded oil and gas company, with profits expected to reach nearly $3 billion this year, according to its U.S. promoters.

After the initial public offering, the Chinese government will still hold 85 percent to 90 percent of PetroChina's stock.

The campaign against the IPO marks a new direction in the widening involvement of church and human rights groups in various foreign policy issues. Now for the first time they have decided to focus on the behavior of foreign companies registered on U.S. stock exchanges.

"This is unchartered waters for religious and human rights groups," said Nina Shea, director of the Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, one of the groups spearheading the effort. "But if American companies can't invest in Sudan, why should we be capitalizing foreign companies who do it?"

Also involved in the campaign are Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Christian Solidarity International, the Family Research Council, the Institute for Religion and Democracy, the American Anti-Slavery Group, the Hudson Institute's Project for International Religious Freedom and the Southern Baptist Convention.

Most of these groups are already outspoken critics of the Chinese government's suppression of Christian and other religious activities inside China but have found themselves powerless to do anything about it. The Chinese company's bid to raise capital in the United States has given the groups a new opportunity for action.

Last month, more than 180 religious leaders sent a letter to President Clinton asking him to stop the CNPC from listing its unit in U.S. stock markets. They cited CNPC's central role in building a 1,000-mile pipeline last year that now allows the Sudanese government to earn several hundred million dollars annually in oil exports to help prosecute the war. China sent 10,000 workers to accelerate construction of the project.

Specifically, the religious leaders asked Clinton to extend his 1997 executive order prohibiting U.S. companies from investing in Sudan to CNPC.

Also signing the letter were three former senior officials of the Reagan administration--national security adviser William P. Clark, Treasury secretary William E. Simon and assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams. A number of conservative Republicans have become involved because they want to make U.S. investors more aware of the activities and character of foreign companies, particularly Chinese state-owned ones.

The letter noted that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright had already taken up with the Canadian government the role of Calgary, Alberta-based Talisman Energy Inc. in the same Sudanese oil project. After her intervention, Canada sent a special mission to Sudan to investigate charges of religious persecution by its Islamic government and Talisman's role in the war. It is to make a recommendation shortly on whether Canada should impose economic sanctions on Sudan.

Clinton will shortly send a reply to the religious leaders stating that while he shares their concern about the "gross abuse of human rights" in Sudan, current U.S. sanctions do not cover the activities of foreign companies that do "some part of their business in Sudan," according to National Security Council spokesman Jim Fallin.

The lead underwriter for the PetroChina offering is Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the New York investment banking firm. The same firm was involved in an ill-fated attempt by the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, to float a $1 billion bond on U.S. markets in late 1997. Gazprom dropped the plan after an outcry in Congress over the Russian company's plan to invest $2 billion in Iran, which, like Sudan, is under U.S. sanctions.

The Gazprom example has encouraged religious leaders to believe they may be able to stop the Chinese public offering, too, if they make investors aware of China's role as Sudan's main foreign ally, arms supplier and oil investor.

"It's a combination of the South African anti-apartheid campaign and the Gazprom precedent," said Roger W. Robinson Jr., a director of the William J. Casey Institute's Center for Security Policy and a former Reagan administration adviser on international economic issues.

But Goldman Sachs officials insist there is no parallel between Gazprom and PetroChina because the new Chinese company, unlike the Russian one, will have no activities outside China. In addition, they say the Russian deal collapsed mainly because of the financial turmoil in Russia rather than congressional and public pressure.

Goldman Sachs officials say the Chinese have set up a number of "firewalls" to assure U.S. investors that PetroChina's funds and activities will remain segregated from those of CNPC and that none of the capital raised here will go to finance operations in Sudan.

These include outside monitoring of PetroChina's accounts and quarterly reports to investors by an international accounting firm, probably PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has also been advising CNPC on restructuring itself for the U.S. market.

"The structure of the deal emerging should mean that Sudan is not an issue because of the safeguards ensuring all the funds raised here will be used domestically," said Robert D. Hormats, Goldman Sachs International vice chairman and a former National Security Council and State Department official. "PetroChina will be a purely domestic company."

Meanwhile, the religious groups have been working through the recently established U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom set up by Congress to press their case with the Clinton administration.

On Oct. 19, a commission delegation met with Clinton, national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and White House chief of staff John D. Podesta at the White House and asked them to take action to bar CNPC from American stock markets.

"They made no commitment other than to think about it," said Shea, one of the commission representatives attending the meeting.

The White House meeting was followed by a national conference on Sudan held in the Hart Senate Office Building on Nov. 9. Addressing the conference were Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a sponsor of the Sudan Peace Act, and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has visited that country three times.

Wolf has written Arthur Levitt Jr., chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Richard A. Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, asking them to stop CNPC's public offering. Levitt replied that the SEC did not take into consideration a company's activities in other nations. Grasso told him the NYSE "is not a government agency and is not in a position to affect U.S. foreign policy through the listing process."

Wolf also wrote Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers asking whether Clinton's 1997 executive order could also be applicable to foreign companies such as CNPC doing business in Sudan. In a Dec. 27 reply, Treasury Assistant Secretary Linda L. Robertson said the administration could stop PetroChina from listing only "if the offering were for the purpose of raising capital for investment in Sudan."

But Robertson indicated the administration was reluctant in principle to take such action. She said it had considered other proposals to bar foreign companies from listing on U.S. exchanges and concluded that it "would create serious uncertainties about our commitment to open markets and the free flow of capital."

Meanwhile, religious and human rights leaders are claiming some success in their divestment campaign against Talisman. Over the past few months, the Texas Teachers Retirement Fund has sold its 100,000 shares in the company; Manning & Napier, a U.S. investment firm, sold 1.2 million shares; and TIAA-CREF, a New York-based pension fund and financial services organization, divested itself of 260,000 shares.

The State of New Jersey, which holds 680,000 shares, and New York City's $90 billion pension fund with 160,000 shares are also weighing whether to sell their Talisman holdings.

TIAA-CREF spokesman Patrick Connor said his $291 billion pension fund, the world's largest, had "no plans at this time" to invest in the PetroChina offering. He said the fund looked "at all sorts of factors" surrounding any investment decision but declined to say whether the controversy over China's involvement in Sudan was one of them.

In addition, the California Public Employees' Retirement System (Calpers), another leading pension fund, sold its 203,500 shares in Talisman on Dec. 30. Fund officials attributed their decision to the sharp drop in the value of the company's stock caused by the divestment campaign.

The California legislature's audit committee wrote Calpers earlier this month urging the fund to review any plans it might have to purchase PetroChina stock given "the substantial scrutiny and criticism" of its ties to CNPC and that company's activities in Sudan.

Calpers spokeswoman Patricia Macht said it was doubtful the fund would buy any PetroChina stock because its investment advisers had decided "it doesn't fit in with our strategy."

CAPTION: Sudan officials watch the first oil flow at a pumping station last May. China National Petroleum's role in the project is at the core of U.S. opposition.