War on Egypt’s Christians Renews Push in Congress for Religious Freedom Envoy

August 23, 2013 - 3:16 AM

egypt church

The St. Mary Church in Fayoum, one of a number of Egyptian churches attacked by Islamists over the past week. (Photo: Almogaz/Twitter)

(CNSNews.com) – A spate of evidently orchestrated Islamist attacks on churches and other Christian targets in Egypt is focusing fresh attention on congressional attempts to establish a U.S. special envoy for religious freedom in the Middle East and South Asia – a move opposed by the Obama administration.

Since last Wednesday, scores of churches have been attacked, along with a seminary, monasteries schools, Bible Society bookstores as well as Christians’ homes, businesses and vehicles. Barnabas Fund, an international agency supporting embattled Christian minorities, calls it “one of the worst periods of targeted violence against them in modern history.” In addition, at least seven Christians’ deaths have been confirmed, according to the Coptic Cultural Center.

“The continued violence against Coptic Christians and other civilians in Egypt is incredibly disturbing and flies in the face of the religious freedoms and fundamental values that Americans hold dear,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said this week.

He urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow a vote on legislation Blunt has introduced with bipartisan support, saying it would “call attention to all religious minorities and demonstrate to leaders in the region that the United States takes religious freedom seriously.”

Earlier legislation introduced by Blunt in the Senate and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in the House faltered despite strong bipartisan backing. A House bill passed in July 2011 by a 420-20 vote, but the initiative died in the Senate, where then-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) put a hold on it, citing State Department advice.

Wolf at the time criticized both Webb and Sen. John Kerry – then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, now secretary of state – for disregarding his “repeated requests for a vote or hearing” on the matter.

Wolf reintroduced the legislation (H.R. 301) last January and it was referred in March to the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

The bill has 62 co-sponsors from both parties, 14 of them added since the Egyptian military’s ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood administration on July 3, since when Islamist attacks on churches have escalated.

Blunt’s bill (S. 653) was referred in March to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It has 10 co-sponsors, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Both bills establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom specifically in the Middle East and South-Central Asia, but the House version additionally stipulates that the envoy prioritize Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – all countries where Christians and other religious minorities, including Baha’is, Shi’ites and Ahmadis, face repression.

The envoy would be tasked to monitor, denounce violations, and recommend U.S. government responses to such abuses; and be authorized to represent the U.S. in contacts with foreign governments and at the U.N. and other international organizations.

When Wolf’s legislation first passed the House in 2011 a Muslim Brotherhood leader said U.S. lawmakers’ concerns for the safety of Copts were unnecessary, and a special envoy would just lead to more U.S. “interference” in Egypt’s affairs.

‘Disengaged or simply uninterested’

The State Department opposes the special envoy legislation because it says the post would be unnecessary, duplicate efforts already underway, and “likely counterproductive.”

In a position paper sent to Webb last year, the department said senior diplomats including the secretary of state and ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom consistently raise religious freedom concerns.

It also said the legislation infringes on the secretary’s “flexibility to make appropriate staffing decisions.”

Copts protest

Coptic Christians protest in Cairo in this file picture. The “Arab spring” has made religious minorities in the region even more vulnerable than before, say lawmakers pushing for the establishment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, File)

During a hearing on Capitol Hill last June examining the plight of Syrian Christians during the ongoing civil war, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) asked Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary in the State’s Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, about the special envoy bill.

Melia reiterated that the administration opposes the move, arguing that the ambassador-at-large and other staff were “able to address these issues and we don’t need an additional envoy at this point.”

Smith told him he hoped the administration would reconsider, saying that an envoy “with the ear of the president would have additional clout, to really convey … how serious we are.”

After a visit to Egypt earlier this year, Wolf said he had observed “a perception that the U.S. is either disengaged or simply uninterested in advocating for this [religious freedom] and other basic human rights.”

“In the absence of leadership on the part of the Obama administration,” Wolf said, he remained committed to seeing the special envoy legislation become law. “Coptic Christians and others like them deserve as much.”

During a discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center last June, Wolf said he did not “pretend to think that a special envoy will single-handedly solve the problem, but it certainly can’t hurt to have a high-level person within the State Department bureaucracy who is exclusively focused on the protection and preservation of these ancient communities.”

“This will send an important message to both our own foreign policy establishment and to suffering communities in the Middle East and elsewhere that religious freedom is a priority – that America will be a voice for the voiceless.”

In 2011 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body that advises the administration and Congress, recommended for the first time that the U.S. designate Egypt a “country of particular concern.”

Under U.S. law countries blacklisted as such because their governments perpetrate or condone “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” abuses face various possible measures, including sanctions and diplomatic pressure to encourage improvements.

The State Department disregarded the Egypt recommendation in 2011 and the USCIRF repeated it last year, reporting that the interim post-Mubarak government then in place “continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religious freedom.”

The State Department did not heed the advice in 2012, nor again earlier this year.

The post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was vacant for the first 513 days of President Obama’s first term office before the president in June 2010 nominated prominent Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook to the position. She was eventually confirmed by the Senate in April 2011.