Measure Calls for Creation of Special Envoy to Address Persecution in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt
Washington, D.C. – In the wake of increasing violence, targeted attacks and heightenedÂ discrimination against Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and persistent concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other nations, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) today introduced bipartisan legislation calling for the creation of a special envoy at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Wolf, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, is long recognized as a voice for the persecuted around the world. He said threats against religious minorities have been increasing in recent months and that the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless, to develop policies to protect and preserve these communities, and to prioritize these issues in our broader foreign policy.
“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. “President Ronald Reagan once said that the U.S. Constitution is a â€˜covenant that we have made not only with ourselves, but with all of mankind.â€™â€™â€™
Last week, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing on the recent spate of attacks and the ongoing persecution of Christians in Iraq and Egypt. Commission members heard testimony about the increasing sectarian tensions in the two countries and the need for greater U.S. attention to the plight of religious minorities.
Iraq and Egypt are not an anomaly, Wolf said. Other religious minorities, including the Ahmadis, Bahaâ€™is, Zoroastrians and Jews, are under increasing pressure in the region. Last year the Pew Forum released a report on global restrictions on religion which found that “nearly 70 percent of the worldâ€™s 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities.”
Wolf, along with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), also co-chairs the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, and they have long pressed the State Department to develop a comprehensive policy to address the unique needs of the ancient ethno-religious faith communities in Iraq, a policy which recognizes that these indigenous communities are not simply the victims of generalized violence in Iraq but are facing targeted violence which is forcing them to flee the lands theyâ€™ve inhabited for centuries.
In addition to numerous letters to the State Department seeking to elevate these issues globally and ensure that U.S. embassies are “islands of freedom” in the midst of repression, Wolf has also written church leaders in the West urging them to speak out on behalf of the persecuted globally.
In 1998, Wolf authored the International Religious Freedom Act which created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department. This post has been vacant for two years. In the hearing last week, Wolf lamented that “personnel is policy,” and that the failure to fill this position did not bode well for people around the globe enduring great hardship simply because of their beliefs.
Below are remarks Wolf inserted in the Congressional Record accompanying the introduction of the bill:
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to draw the attention of my colleagues to the plight of Christians and other religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia and to announce that I am introducing legislation which would require the administration to appoint a special envoy for religious minorities in these regions to make this issue a foreign policy priority. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this important legislation.
Last October, at least 70 people were killed during a siege on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad making it the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since 2003. Less than two months later, extremists bombed the homes of more than a dozen Christian families throughout Baghdad. In a hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, an Iraqi nun testified that the current spate of violence against Christians is worse than anything experienced under the ruthless dictator Saddam Hussein. The U.S. has a moral imperative to ensure that these minorities are protected.
On New Yearâ€™s Eve, Mariam Fekry, a 22-year-old Egyptian woman posted on her Facebook page before leaving for mass that “2010 is over. This year has the best memories of my life. Really enjoyed this year. I hope that 2011 is much better. Plz God stay beside me & help make it all true.” Tragically, that evening Miriam and 22 other people were killed by a suicide bomber in Alexandria, Egypt while coming out of mass at St. Mark and St. Peter Coptic Church. It was the worst violence against the countryâ€™s Christian minority in a decade. Just ten days after the attack in Alexandria, an off-duty police officer fatally shot a Coptic Christian man and wounded five others Copts on a train in Egypt.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries where the United States has invested its treasure and the lives of countless brave young American soldiers, persecution of Christians runs rampant. On November 7 last year, a Pakistani court sentenced Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, to death for the “crime” of blasphemy. Only after intervention by the international community was her execution delayed. Her fate remains unclear. Unfortunately this is symptomatic of a much larger problem in Pakistan. Pakistanâ€™s blasphemy laws are often used to victimize both religious minorities and Muslims. In fact, Punjabâ€™s governor influential governor, Salman Taseer was shot and killed by his own body guard who reportedly told police, “that he killed Mr. Taseer because of the governorâ€™s opposition to Pakistanâ€™s blasphemy law.”
In Afghanistan, a televised broadcast of Afghans being baptized resulted in the arrest of four Christians last August, who were eventually released due to international pressure. However, two Afghan converts to Christianity remain imprisoned on account of their faith. One of the Christian converts who is facing a possible death sentence reportedly said, “Without my faith I would not be able to live.”
Other religious minorities including the Ahmadis, Bahaâ€™is, Zoroastrians and Jews are under increasing pressure in the region.
Last May, militants in Pakistan attacked two Ahmadi mosques in Pakistan killing at least 80 people. While the Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim, Pakistani law does not recognize them as such and they have been the target of large-scale coordinated attacks by extremist groups.
According to the Bahaâ€™i World News Service, some 335 Bahaâ€™is have been arrested in Iran on account of their religious beliefs. Seven leaders of the Bahaâ€™i faith in Iran have been imprisoned since their arrest in 2008. According to the State Departmentâ€™s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, Zoroastrians living in Iran also face persecution and blatant discrimination.
Members of the Jewish faith continue to experience discrimination and persecution throughout the region. The Special Envoy for Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal has noted that Holocaust glorification “is especially virulent in the Middle East media.”
In the wake of these devastating attacks on religious freedom, which in some cases are so severe that they literally threaten to wipe these ancient indigenous communities from the lands theyâ€™ve inhabited for centuries, it is clear that more must be done. Sadly, against the backdrop of these attacks, the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department has been vacant for two years.
If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak. President Ronald Reagan once said that the U.S. Constitution is a “covenant that we have made not only with ourselves, but with all of mankind.”
I believe that the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless around the world, and 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.
EDITORS NOTE: Pursuant to clause 7 of Rule XII of the Rules of the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress, the following statement is submitted regarding the specific powers granted to Congress in the Constitution to enact the accompanying bill or joint resolution.
Congress has the power to enact this legislation pursuant to the following:
Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the United States Constitution, which states: “The Congress shall have the Power to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which states: “[The President] shall have the Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”