Reps Urged to Back Religious Freedom Bill for Asia & Middle East

Religious freedom advocates in America are urging their U.S. representative to back a bill that would allow the U.S. government to better monitor and defend religious freedom of minorities in Asia's south-central region and the Middle East.

H.R. 440, introduced last month by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), directs the U.S. president to appoint a special envoy within the Dept. of State to "promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia."

"If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak," Wolf said in introducing the bill.

"I believe that the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless around the world."

The bill calls for action in more than 30 countries including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan.

Also included in the list are Israel's disputed territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In recent events, a wave of discrimination and violence against Christians have risen in countries including Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan. People groups being targeted include Ahmadis, Baha'is, Zoroastrians and Jews, noted Wolf, who is co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

"I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting my legislation calling for a special envoy dedicated to speaking out for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia and elevating this issue as a foreign policy priority for America," the congressman said.

So far, the bill has picked up 31 co-sponsors, including 22 Republicans and 9 Democrats.

In religious circles, supporters such as Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors urged more Americans to remind their representatives to support the bill – which they believe "has the potential to significantly benefit suffering Christians worldwide."

"This effort to draw more attention to the lack of religious freedom and to empower the special envoy to take action to improve the situation of persecuted minorities is a much-needed and timely initiative by Congressman Wolf," said Lindsay Vessey, U.S. advocacy director for Open Doors, this past week.

"Hopefully, if this bill is passed, the special envoy would increase the profile of religious freedom within the foreign policy establishment."

According to the measure, the special envoy will be charged with promoting religious freedom of minorities in countries of the Near East and South Central Asia. The envoy will also be expected to denounce rights violations, and give recommendation for the subsequent U.S. reaction.

In doing so, the task force will monitor and combat acts of religious intolerance incited against religious minorities in countries list in the bill. Furthermore, the envoy will work with local officials to address laws that are inherently discriminatory toward religious minority communities.

The bill is presently making its way through the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was immediately referred to the committee following its introduction on Jan. 25.