If you are a Baha’i in Iran, chances are good that you are in jail. If you are a Copt in Egypt, your church may have been burnt to the ground in the past few months. If you think Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate basic human rights, you will likely be assassinated soon. And if you have had contact with missionaries and are repatriated to your native North Korea, you will soon be tortured to death.
Recent Pew Charitable Trust research indicates that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with “high” or “very high” levels of restriction on religion. Americans are among the 30 percent who do not.
Religious liberty has flourished in the United States as it has in few other nations in history. America’s “first freedom” undergirds the unique society in which Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindu and a host of others get along in relative peace. Wouldn’t greater religious freedom similarly pacify other countries that are presently embroiled in violence and strife? Won’t greater peace in foreign nations contribute to our own national security?
Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 and thus integrated IRF into U.S. foreign policy for the first time. IRFA created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bi-partisan organization that holds the State Department accountable to its IRF responsibilities. The legislation also established a mechanism by which the president can punish governments that violate religious liberty and mandated an annual report to disclose which nations are the worst violators. However, these provisions have not been as successful as they might have been, and the law must be amended to ensure more effective implementation.
Rep. Frank Wolf, one of the most vocal champions of IRF in the House, has introduced HR 1856, a bill that amends the IRFA in a few helpful ways:
- First, it extends the USCIRF’s termination date from Sept. 30, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2018.
- It also determines that the Ambassador-at-Large for IRF will report directly to the Secretary of State rather than to the Undersecretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. This will help to prioritize IRF within the State Department.
- It mandates that Foreign Service Officers receive religious freedom training.
- Finally, it establishes a more precise and effective protocol for presidential action against countries that are deemed to be the most severe violators of religious freedom.
These amendments are crucial to US efforts to improve religious freedom conditions around the world. Should USCIRF expire, no organization exists that has comparable resources with which to research and report on IRF and to hold the government accountable to improving IRF. If the status quo of religious persecution is to change, the status quo of the low priority of IRF must also change.
Religious prisoners must be freed. Church burnings must stop. Capital punishment of religious dissenters cannot be tolerated. The United States must take steps to promote International Religious Freedom in pursuit of its constitutional ideals and to the end of national security. HR 1856 is the first step. To help ensure HR 1856 is passed, please take a moment to ask your U.S. Representative to co-sponsor and vote for this important bill. You can send a message directly from Open Doors website at http://www.opendoorsusa.org/advocacy/amend-the-international-religious-freedom-act