State Dept. Paper Details Special Envoy for Religious Freedom Would be 'Counterproductive'

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is defending his actions for not backing legislation that would create a special envoy for religious freedom at the State Department, contending that doing so would overlap current offices dedicated to religious freedom abroad while also limiting resources for those agencies.

But Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) insists more still needs to be done and that if the current state of religious freedom abroad was acceptable, he would not be pushing so hard for this measure.

Rep. Wolf recently sent a letter to Sen. Webb, urging him to stop blocking and provide a path for legislation that would create a new special envoy at the United States Department of State to oversee religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.

The letter was sent more than a year after the House of Representatives passed the measure. In July 2011, with overwhelming bipartisan support, the house passed HR 440, thus paving the way to create a special envoy to address the concerns of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.

It has been stalled in the Senate since.

The special envoy would focus on religious minorities in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan with recommendations coming from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

For Rep. Wolf, the problem does not seem to be correcting itself and in many cases, persecution of religious minorities in specific countries is actually getting worse.

"If I believed that religious minorities, especially in these strategic regions, were getting the attention warranted at the State Department, I would cease in pressing for passage of this legislation. Sadly, that is far from being the case. We must act now," according to the letter released by Rep. Wolf's office.

Sen. Webb's office responded by insisting that there are several established offices which are effective and dedicated to combating religious persecution. The senator had the State Department conduct analysis of the proposed creation of a new special convoy for religious freedom to explore the possibilities of creating a special convoy.

"We appreciate the serious issues raised in the proposed legislation … we oppose the bill as it infringes on the Secretary's flexibility to make appropriate staffing decisions. The bill is unnecessary as it duplicates a number of ongoing activities at the Department … of senior diplomats who regularly address these issues, the most prominent and effective is the Secretary of State," according to a position paper published by the State Department's Office of Legislative Affairs.

The State Department contends that action is already being facilitated in those regions and additional envoys would be counterproductive and may even produce conflict due to the duplication of roles and resources currently provided to the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, established under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

"We have an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and an Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, all of whom are focused on religious freedom issues," the position paper read.

"The Department supports active diplomacy with countries on human rights, in diplomacy conducted by our assistant secretaries of state, our ambassadors, and other key diplomatic staff. Finally, we report on these issues in annual, global reports on religious freedom and human rights."