Washington, D.C. (May 9, 2014) – Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) today introduced legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which he helped establish in 1998 as the author of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The commission was last reauthorized in September 2011.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government advisory body charged with monitoring the status of the freedom of religion or belief abroad and providing policy recommendations to the president, Secretary of State and Congress.
“Religious freedom is America’s first freedom, and a vitally important human right enshrined in international law,” Wolf said. “It should be a bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. Too often that is not the case.”
“The Commission plays an invaluable role in giving an unvarnished picture of religious freedom violations the world over,” Wolf continued. “It is well respected on both sides of the aisle for its thoughtful analysis and policy recommendations, and its commissioners are regularly called upon to provide expert testimony at congressional hearings and briefings. Simply put, the commission’s research informs the work of many in foreign policy-making circles.”
As recent as April 30, 2014, the USCIRF released its annual report which documented religious freedom violations in 33 countries and made a number of policy recommendations, including that 16 countries and recommended that the State Department add eight more nations to its list of “countries of particular concern,” defined under law as countries where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated: Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam. USCIRF also recommended that the following eight countries be re-designated as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. for particularly severe violation of religious freedom. The report also examines U.S. international religious freedom policy and recommends way to strengthen U.S. engagement and promotion of religious freedom.
Wolf said he looked forward to swift passage of this critical legislation.
Representative Wolf deeply cares and has worked diligently to protect the human right, Freedom of Worship for all people in the world.
He has long believed that the United States has an obligation to speak out for religious freedom, often referred to as the “first freedom.” Recognizing that religious freedom was often sidelined in our bilateral relations and diplomatic engagement with other countries, in 1998, he authored the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and established the International Religious Freedom Office at the State Department headed by an ambassador-at-large. This was a critical first step in integrating religious freedom into our broader foreign policy, but he says “Much remains to be done.”
“Sadly, religious freedom advocacy has never been more needed. A landmark report on religious freedom, released by the Pew Forum in 2009, found that “nearly 70 percent of the world’s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities. Pew has done subsequent studies on the issue and it’s 2014 report found that incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in the baseline year of the study.”
“If the international community fails to speak out and advocate for those whose basic human rights are being trampled, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance are bleak.”
In January 2013 I reintroduced bipartisan legislation to create a special envoy within the State Department to advocate on behalf of vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.
In countries like Iraq and Egypt, ancient Christian communities are being driven from the lands they have inhabited for centuries. In Iran, Baha’is are imprisoned and in some cases executed simply because of their faith. In Pakistan, Ahmadi graves are desecrated. In Afghanistan, a country where America has sacrificed greatly in both blood and treasure, the most basic right to freedom of religion or belief is not recognized in the constitution. This is but a snap shot of the grave challenges facing these communities.
In January 2011 following a Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing during which sobering testimony [was heard] about the challenges facing religious minorities in Iraq and Egypt, Wolf introduced the special envoy, bill – along with Democrat Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who is of Armenian and Assyrian heritage. The hearing predated the so-called “Arab Spring.” But arguably, the dramatic changes in the region have only made these communities more vulnerable.
Over 20 special envoy posts exist to protect a range of groups and interests, but none is dedicated to the plight of Middle East religious minorities.
On September 18, 2013 the House again overwhelmingly passed the Special Envoy vote by a vote of 402-22, but it has languished in the Senate.
Wolf is actively working to press for swift Senate action. Each day that passes without a dedicated special envoy to advocate for these besieged religious communities, America’s first freedom, religious freedom, is under assault around the globe.
“I renewed my efforts in the 113th Congress to press for passage of this important legislation and to mobilize faith leaders in the West to advocate for these imperiled communities. In January I sent a letter to more than 300 Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox leaders in the West, calling for them to use their influence to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Church around the globe, specifically in the Middle East.”
On Wednesday, the Christian leaders joined forces to call for an end to the silence over persecuted Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Rep. Wolf has regularly met with beleaguered Christians from this part of the world. He said, “Their stories are eerily similar: believers kidnapped for ransom; churches–some full of worshipers–attacked; clergy targeted for killing. In the face of this violence, Christians are leaving in droves.”
In countries where Christians must deal with harsh persecution, many are silenced by fear and abuse. The oppressors wish to hide the atrocities from the international community. Those standing up for religious rights and revealing the abuse are threatened to be silent or face severe persecution—death threats, pressured to convert to Islam, beaten, tortured, shot at and even lose their lives. It is not uncommon for them to be fired from their jobs when the employer is pressured to do so by the persecutors. And to further strike fear, their families likely experience all of the above.
The growing radicalism in these countries has forced many religious minorities to live in fear. In Pakistan, where false blasphemy charges have escalated and are abused, Christians asks us, “What has happened to humanity and what have we done to deserve such treatment?” (John 15:18, John 15:20) Simply being in disagreement with the prophet of Islam can wrongfully be proclaimed as blasphemy, denying their freedom of worship. As seen in recent cases, subjecting them to possible death sentences has also intensified. Too often and now more frequently, Pakistani citizens trying to make a difference by promoting peace and religious equality are forced to flee the country to spare their lives and that of their families. While Pakistan loses one more of the brave few willing to stand up and be a voice for Christian rights and that of other religious minorities.
In the Bible there is much written about the oppressed and persecuted. Jesus had more to say about the poor than any other group of people. He had great concern for this critical issue and taught us that we should too. As American Christians, if we are earnest about our faith, then we should be compelled to aid the oppressed in the world. Being blessed by God living in a nation of great freedom, should we not use this gift and ability to be a voice for those who don’t?
VOP and persecuted Christians appreciate the work of Rep. Wolf. May the Lord bless him in his efforts.
Engage and inform others on the topic of Christian persecution. And get them praying for our suffering brethren!