Democrat Urged to Lift 'Hold' on Bill Supporting Vulnerable Religious Minorities in Middle East and Asia

By Patrick Goodenough | July 13, 2012 | 4:40am EDT

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) (AP Photo)

( – With time running out on the legislative calendar, a Republican lawmaker is urging a Democratic senator to lift a “hold” on legislation that would establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East and South-Central Asia.

Almost a year ago, the House of Representatives passed a bill with strong bipartisan support – it had 80 co-sponsors from both parties – but companion legislation has been held up in the Senate. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who authored the House bill, says he learned that Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is behind the hold.

In a letter sent to Webb this week, released by his office on Thursday, Wolf said he could not understand why Webb would oppose the initiative.

“More importantly, I would venture that the Coptic Christians, Baha’is, Chaldo-Assyrians, Ahmadis, small remaining Jewish population and countless other religious minorities throughout the Middle East and South Central Asia who face daily persecution, hardship, violence, instability and even death would be hard-pressed to see your objection to this straight-forward, bipartisan legislation,” he wrote.

“Will a special envoy guarantee these communities’ survival – and even flourishing – in the lands they have inhabited for centuries?” Wolf continued. “I do not know. But I am certain, that to do nothing is not an option – lest on this administration’s and this Congress’ watch we witness a Middle East emptied of ancient faith communities, foremost among them the beleaguered Christian community.”

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is holding up a bipartisan bill to establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East and South-Central Asia. Webb is not standing for reelection this year. (AP Photo)

Approached for comment late Thursday, a spokesman for Webb said the senator had asked the State Department for its analysis of the legislation. The State Department objected to the bill, saying the creation of an envoy position would be “unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counterproductive.”

The department argued in a position paper that the bill infringes on the secretary of state’s “flexibility to make appropriate staffing decisions.”

It said senior diplomats from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton down consistently raise religious freedom concerns, in meetings in the U.S. and while traveling abroad.

Moreover, an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (Suzan Johnson Cook), special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism (Hannah Rosenthal) and assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor (Michael Posner) all focus on religious freedom issues, it said.

The position paper added that Cook had made the regions covered by the legislation – the Middle East and South and Central Asia – “a priority.”

(As reported last year, President Obama nominated Cook, a prominent Baptist pastor from the Bronx, to the post in June 2010, 513 days after taking office. The nomination was eventually confirmed by the Senate in April 2011.)

In his letter to Webb, Wolf disputed that the administration was giving international religious freedom in the Middle East and South-Central Asia the attention it deserved.

“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,” he wrote in the letter to Webb. “Sadly, that is far from being the case. We must act now.”

‘Shrinking minority of Christians’

The Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, which passed in the House on July 29 last year by a 402-20 vote, created an envoy to promote religious freedom for minorities in 31 countries stretching from Morocco to Bangladesh, and including the Central Asian republics.

It gave priority to four countries that are considered by religious freedom advocates to be among the most dangerous places to be a Christian or other religious minority – Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan.

The legislation called on the envoy – who would be appointed by the president and report to the president and secretary of state – to work with foreign governments to address discriminatory laws, and to recommend to the U.S. government appropriate responses to violations.

Its passage was criticized by an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader, who said it would bring more U.S. “interference” in Egypt’s affairs, but welcomed by Christian activists in Pakistan, who expressed hope that it may bring more U.S. pressure to bear on Pakistan to end the persecution of non-Muslim minorities.

The companion bill in the Senate was introduced in June 2011 by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and co-sponsored by two Republicans and three Democrats.

In a letter to Obama on the day it was introduced, Blunt tied the initiative to the political turmoil in parts of the Arab world.

“As we observe the political upheavals occurring throughout the region, we need to remember that this region is the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions,” he wrote. “I’m particularly interested in ensuring that the shrinking minority of Christians in places like Egypt, Iraq, the West Bank, and Afghanistan receive adequate attention by our foreign emissaries.”

“I expect this bill to encourage the State Department to redouble its efforts to call attention to all religious minorities and demonstrate to leaders in the region that the United States takes religious freedom seriously,” Blunt said. “I’m hopeful that as change takes place in many of these countries, they will look to the United States as a model of religious tolerance and freedom.”

Introducing the bill, Levin told the Senate, “It is profoundly in the interests of the United States to promote freedom of worship and the rights of religious minorities around the world, and especially in nations where those freedoms are under threat.”

If the Senate bill is not passed this session the process will have to begin afresh next year.

The Christian religious freedom advocacy group Open Doors USA last month launched an advocacy campaign to encourage the Senate to pass the bill.

“This important bill won`t be moved to a vote unless enough people concerned with the persecution of religious minorities are willing to speak out and ask their senators to take action,” said the group’s advocacy director, Lindsay Vessey.

“With a third of the U.S. Senate facing election votes in the fall, it is a great time to share with your elected officials about the issues most important to you,” she said.

The 31 countries identified in the legislation are:

Middle East: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, as well as the West Bank and Gaza

South and Central Asia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

All but three of those countries (Nepal, Lebanon and Israel) featured on the Open Doors 2012 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.

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