Mar 27, 2014
In a pointed letter to the president, Wolf wrote that if the Obama Administration can signal its intention to appoint a special envoy to the Arctic region it should be able to appoint a special envoy for religious minorities. The House has twice passed Wolf’s legislation to create an envoy for religious minorities but the measure has stalled in the Senate, partly because of opposition from the Obama Administration.
“Your administration could act today, consistent with the sentiments you expressed following your meeting with the Pope, in announcing the creation of a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia and then you could immediately begin consulting with the affected communities, including the growing diaspora communities here in the U.S., about a high profile person best suited to take on this monumental task,” Wolf wrote. “I urge you to put your words into action, lest inaction be perceived as indifference.”
Below is the complete text of Wolf’s letter:
The Honorable Barack H. Obama
The White House
Washington DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
I read with great interest your public remarks today regarding your meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, specifically your comment that you spent a “lot of time talking about what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians,” and “reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”
While I agree protecting religious minorities around the world SHOULD be central to U.S. foreign policy, this has sadly not rung true in recent years. And I think most would agree that there is not simply potential persecution of Christians, and I would add other vulnerable religious minorities, rather there is a very real threat posed to these ancient faith communities throughout the region as evidenced by the discrimination, violence and even death that is a daily reality.
More than three years ago I introduced relatively modest bipartisan legislation that has twice overwhelmingly passed in the House only to languish in the Senate. The bill would create a special envoy within the U.S. State Department, charged with advocating for vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia, precisely the very issue you spoke to today. It has been widely embraced by an array of faith-based organizations, including but not limited to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.
Consider the following: Coptic Christians, once numbering roughly 8 -10 million, are leaving in droves in the face of increased repression, persecution and violence in Egypt. Similarly, Iraq’s Christian population has plummeted. Churches have been targeted, believers kidnapped for ransom and families threatened with violence if they stay. Canon Andrew White, famously dubbed the “Vicar of Baghdad” as he oversees the only Anglican Church in Iraq, was quoted as saying that Christians, “are frightened even to walk to church because they might come under attack. All the churches are targets… We used to have 1.5 million Christians, now we have probably only 200,000 left… There are more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than there are here.”
And of course this month marks the anniversary of the uprising which eventually spiraled into the war and violence which has terrorized Syria for three years now. Muslims and Christians alike have experienced horrific violence. But time and again in my meetings with Syrian Christians they remark that they fear the fate that befell their brethren in Iraq, where, as already noted, hundreds of thousands have fled after being targeted by rival Islamist groups. Notably, the Christians of the Syrian village of Raqqa now must endure the additional injustice of dhimmitude whereby those who remain face death, forced conversion or an exacting set of demands which includes bans on renovating and rebuilding churches, a prohibition on the public exercise of their faith and much more.
Christians are not alone. In Iran, the so-called “Baha’i Seven” languish unjustly in prison. In Pakistan, violence against the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is often met with impunity and basic rights, including the ability to vote, are denied. And, Anti-Semitism throughout the region is rampant.
The scope of religious persecution around the world, but especially in the Middle East is gravely concerning, and ought to alarm any person of conscience. I do not pretend to think that a special envoy, as envisioned by the legislation I authored, would single-handedly solve the problem, for it is vast. But I can say with certainty that it would provide much-needed hope and comfort to communities desperate to know that the United States stands with them.
At various points, your State Department has opposed Senate passage of this bill. While I would welcome legislative action on the measure, it is by no means necessary for the creation of a special envoy. In fact, just last month, Secretary of State Kerry announced his intention to name a special representative or envoy to the Arctic region. Your administration could act today, consistent with the sentiments you expressed following your meeting with the Pope, in announcing the creation of a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia and then you could immediately begin consulting with the affected communities, including the growing diaspora communities here in the U.S., about a high profile person best suited to take on this monumental task.
I urge you to put your words into action, lest inaction be perceived as indifference.
Frank R. Wolf
Member of Congress