Congress Passes Key Bill to Combat Religious Persecution

Displaced Iraqi Christians who fled from Islamic State militants in Mosul, pray at a school acting as a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, September 6, 2014.
Displaced Iraqi Christians who fled from Islamic State militants in Mosul, pray at a school acting as a refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq, September 6, 2014. | (Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

A key religious freedom bill that would bolster the State Department's ability to help counter terrorism and the increasing persecution of religious minorities throughout the world has been sent to President Barack Obama's desk.

Both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate have passed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which is named after the former Virginia congressman who spent over two decades advocating for persecuted religious minorities across the globe.

The legislation, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., in the House in 2015 and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the Senate in 2016, was co-sponsored by over 100 lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle and aims to strengthen and modernize the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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The House passed the legislation on Tuesday after it passed through the Senate unanimously last week.

"From China and Vietnam to Syria and Nigeria, we are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious believers and for U.S. national security," Smith, the chair of the Global Human Rights Subcommittee, said in a statement. "Ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria are on the verge of extinction and other religious minorities in the Middle East face a constant assault from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria."

"The freedom to practice a religion without persecution is a precious right for everyone, of whatever race, sex, or location on earth," Smith continued. "This human right is enshrined in our own founding documents, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has been a bedrock principle of open and democratic societies for centuries."

The legislation does a handful of different things to help improve the United States' global diplomacy efforts and train diplomats to be able to address religious persecution and sectarian conflict.

If signed by Obama, the law would require more frequent executive actions to counter severe violations of religious freedom across the world. It would also force all foreign service officers to receive international religious freedom training and would integrate religious freedom into "every aspect of U.S. foreign policy," a press release produced by Smith's office explains.

The law would require the creation of a "Special Watch List," which would identify countries that engage in or tolerate violations of religious freedom but do not meet the requirements to be designated a "country of particular concern."

The law would also create a "designated persons list" that highlights people who have committed violations of religious freedom, as well as an "entity of particular concern" designation for non-state actors, such as extremist terror groups.

Also, the law would require the creation of a comprehensive religious prisoners list that highlights those who are detained, imprisoned and tortured because of their faith.

Such a list would highlight people like Pakistani Christian mother Asia Bibi, who has been sitting on death row for over six years after being accused of committing blasphemy. It would also highlight the numerous Christians and other religious minorities detained in authoritarian nations like Iran, Sudan or North Korea.

Additionally, the law would strengthen the role of special advisor for religious freedom at the National Security Council and would require the ambassador at-large for international religious freedom to report to the secretary of state, a move proponents say would give the ambassador more political influence.

"When it comes to universal human rights that must be respected, few are more fundamental to the human spirit than the freedom to live out your faith according to your conscience, without fear of persecution, violence or imprisonment," Rubio said in a statement. "But this right is under assault in every corner of the globe, and we must do more to defend it and counter the vicious attacks on religious minorities. Every day, the headlines speak to the necessity of this legislation — a bombing targeting peaceful worshippers at a Cairo church over the weekend, another deadly self-immolation in Tibet last week, and a mob attack against a mosque belonging to Pakistan's beleaguered Ahmadiyya community just yesterday."

"I'm glad we were able to get this bill done this year," Rubio added. "And I commend Congressman Chris Smith for his leadership in passing this legislation. I urge President Obama to sign it without delay."

Passage of the bill was praised by Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore took to Twitter on Tuesday to praise members of congress for their work in passing the bill.

In an interview with World, Wolf explained that Smith's bill gives the office of the ambassador at-large for religious freedom "more teeth" and the ambassador "a lot more clout."

"Had the bill not passed, it would have been a defeat for human rights and religious freedom," Wolf said. "It would have been a terrible message to the church in China, Nigeria, and Iran — to those being persecuted."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith Follow Samuel Smith on Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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