July 11, 2014
The plight of Iraq’s Jewish community, Syria’s persecuted Christian and Muslim minorities, and Egypt’s beleaguered Christian population has largely gone unnoticed by the Western world and has only occasionally been addressed by the American diplomatic corps (save onetime hashtag campaigns). The appalling case of Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim, a woman married to a U.S. citizen and detained in prison for months for refusing to renounce her faith, has made the State Department’s lackluster defense of the rights of conscience internationally all the more apparent.
However, last night, the U.S. Senate took an encouraging step forward in the effort to force the State Department to prioritize the freedom of religion in diplomatic efforts globally. In a unanimous vote, the Senate cleared the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2014 (S. 653).
Sponsored by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt (R), S. 653 aims to skirt the intractable bureaucracy of the State Department and elevate the engagement of religious freedom issues in the region of the world most threatened by attacks against people of faith. S. 653 creates the new post of “Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia,” a position to be filled by a Presidential appointee with regional expertise and experience in the field of human rights and religious freedom.
While a companion bill (long championed by Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia) had passed the House of Representatives almost a year ago, S. 653 has languished in the Senate. Last night’s Senate passage marked a breakthrough in negotiations, with the amended Senate bill now containing a sunset provision (unless reauthorized, the Special Envoy position will expire in 2019) to address cost concerns. Now sent back to the House, S.653 faces strong prospects of quick passage given the large bi-partisan levels of support for the Special Envoy in the House previously (H.R. 301 passed by a vote of 402-22 last year).
As entire religious communities face extinction in parts of the Middle East and South Central Asia, the urgency of articulating religious freedom principles abroad has never been starker. A Special Envoy empowered to speak on behalf of religious minorities undergoing persecution will give the U.S. greater leverage in advocating for a freedom so foundational to all others. It is vital that Congress finish consideration of S.653 and that the President sign this bi-partisan legislation into law.