(CNSNews.com) – A leading congressional advocate for international religious freedom challenged President Obama on Thursday to appoint a special envoy for persecuted religious minorities, after the president said he told Pope Francis that protecting religious minorities around the world was “central to U.S. foreign policy.”
In a letter to Obama, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) also took issue with his reference to the “potential persecution” of Christians.
“I think most would agree that there is not simply 'potential persecution' of Christians, and I would add other vulnerable religious minorities,” Wolf wrote. “Rather there is a very real threat posed to these ancient faith communities throughout the region as evidenced by the discrimination, violence and even death that is a daily reality.”
During a press conference in Rome, Obama said he and the Pope had “spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.”
“There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians,” he said. “And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”
Wolf is the author of legislation to establish a special envoy focusing on the rights of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia regions, with priority given to Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It passed by overwhelming margins in mid-2011 and again last September, and a companion bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December.
The Obama administration opposes the legislation, and the earlier version died in the Senate after a Democratic senator placed a hold on it in 2012, citing State Department advice that such a position was unnecessary.
At the time Wolf also criticized then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – now secretary of state – John Kerry, who he said had disregarded his “repeated requests for a vote or hearing” on the legislation.
“In fact, just last month, Secretary of State Kerry announced his intention to name a special representative or envoy to the Arctic region,” he noted. (Kerry made the announcement in a letter to Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), author of a bill to establish an ambassador-at-large for Arctic affairs.)
“Your administration could act today, consistent with the sentiments you expressed following your meeting with the Pope, in announcing the creation of a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia,” said Wolf.
“And then you could immediately begin consulting with the affected communities, including the growing diaspora communities here in the U.S., about a high profile person best suited to take on this monumental task.”
“I urge you to put your words into action, lest inaction be perceived as indifference,” he added.
Wolf pointed to the plight of minority Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt and the persecution of Baha’i in Iran and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan, and “rampant” anti-Semitism in the region.
“The scope of religious persecution around the world, but especially in the Middle East is gravely concerning, and ought to alarm any person of conscience,” he said. “I do not pretend to think that a special envoy, as envisioned by the legislation I authored, would single-handedly solve the problem, for it is vast. But I can say with certainty that it would provide much-needed hope and comfort to communities desperate to know that the United States stands with them.”
‘Utter lack of urgency’
In a speech on the House floor last December, Wolf lamented the fact that the special envoy legislation “has languished in the Senate for two consecutive Congresses now.”
“How do we explain the utter lack of urgency on the part of our own government to address an epic exodus – that of Christianity from its very birthplace?”
Citing cases like the absence of churches in Afghanistan and those on death row in Pakistan for “blasphemy,” Wolf was critical of the administration’s response.
“Too often, when confronted with these types of cases, State Department offers unsatisfactory assurances that they ‘raised the issue’ during private bilateral discussions – that is if they raised it all,” he told the House.
“Or perhaps, the department issues a bland statement ‘condemning the violence’ – and then acts as if this is somehow a courageous or principled response to a bloody assault on innocent human life.”
The State Department’s stated position on a special envoy as envisaged by the House and Senate bills is that the post would duplicate existing efforts.
The department’s work in this area is led by the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a post that was not filled for the first 27 months of Obama’s first term, and has been vacant again since last October.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, Obama said he looked forward to nominating someone to fill the ambassador-at-large post.