Congressman Frank Wolf

Representing the 10th District of Virginia

House Passes Bipartisan Religious Minorities Special Envoy Bill

Sep 18, 2013

Contact: Jill Shatzen
(202) 22-5136

WOLF APPLAUDS HOUSE PASSAGE OF BIPARTISAN
RELIGIOUS MINORITIES SPECIAL ENVOY LEGISLATION

Urges Swift Senate Action

Washington, D.C. (September 18, 2013) – The House today overwhelmingly passed legislation introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) to create a special envoy at the State Department charged with focusing exclusively on the plight of religious minorities in South Central Asia and the Middle East.  The bill passed the House by a vote of 402-22.  

Wolf and Eshoo, co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, first introduced this legislation in the 112th Congress, prior to recent events in the Middle East that have only further jeopardized religious minorities.  In 2011, the bill passed the House by a vote of 402-20, but a hold was placed on it in the Senate.

In January, Wolf sent a letter to more than 300 Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox leaders in the West, calling for them to use their influence to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Church around the globe.  In the letter, Wolf described how Christians in the regions affected by this legislation are imprisoned, beaten, detained, tortured and killed every day because of their beliefs.

Thus far, the State Department has not done enough to protect these and other ancient religious minority populations, which are rapidly decreasing in countries like Iraq and Egypt, Wolf said.  

In remarks yesterday on the House floor, Wolf mentioned that the special envoy legislation is supported by a diverse group of faith-based organizations, including the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Southern Baptist Convention and Christians United for Israel, among others, as well as a multitude of Diaspora organizations which are directly linked with the very people the special envoy would serve.

In describing the tenuous situation of a myriad of persecuted groups, Wolf said, “As we debate this legislation, Coptic Christians are leaving Egypt in droves.  As we debate this legislation, seven Baha’i leaders languish unjustly in an Iranian prison as does American citizen Saaed Abedini.  As we debate this legislation, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan are prohibited from voting and their graves are desecrated.  As we debate this legislation, Syrian Christians fear they too will be caught in the crossfire like Iraq’s Christians, or worse yet, like Iraq's Jew – that's right, I am told only a single Jew remains in the country where once a vibrant Jewish community flourished.” 

He added, “I urge my colleagues to join me in sending an undeniable message to persecuted people of faith the world over, and just as importantly, to the forces that oppress them, that America – this shining city on a hill as envisioned by our founders – will not be silent in the face of the evil.”

“Religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia are confronting deadly threats every day, ranging from discrimination and marginalization to outright violence,” Rep. Eshoo said. “This legislation responds to the urgent needs of those Christians and other religious minorities by creating a special envoy at the State Department.  A special envoy will help develop policy options to ensure the protection and preservation of these ancient faith communities, as well as serving as a high-level advocate within our own government and with foreign governments.  The history of violence against religious minorities must not be allowed to repeat itself.”

For more on Wolf’s work on the persecution of religious minorities, click here.

To read Wolf and Eshoo’s blog post on this topic, click here.

The full text of Wolf’s floor speech is below.

Mr. Speaker, I’d like to begin by thanking Chairman Royce for swiftly moving this bill to the floor as well as the House Republican leadership for recognizing that this simple but critical legislation is worthy of prioritization by this Congress even with all of the other issues before us this fall.

In January 2011, following a spate of attacks against Christians in Iraq and ongoing persecution in Egypt, I convened a Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing focused on the plight of religious minorities in Egypt and Iraq.  Among the witnesses was Rep. Anna Eshoo, who ultimately became the lead Democrat on this bill for two consecutive Congresses. 

During the hearing we heard sobering testimony about the challenges facing these communities.  A resounding theme emerged – Chaldo-Assyrian Christians and Coptic Christians were being marginalized and targeted for violence.  These realities were all the more troubling given the historic roots of the faith communities in these two countries – amazingly, many Iraqi Christians today still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Not only were these communities being threatened in the lands they had inhabited for centuries, their plight was largely unknown and seemingly unimportant within the broader foreign policy apparatus.  Notably, at the time of the hearing, the post of U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom had been vacant for two years.

While the hearing predated the so-called “Arab Spring,” without question the dramatic changes in the region have only further jeopardized these communities.

I was convinced then and remain convinced today that religious minorities in the Middle East and in key countries in South Central Asia, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, need someone who can be their voice both within the halls of Foggy Bottom and abroad with foreign governments.

Last Congress, this legislation overwhelmingly passed the House only to stall in the Senate in the face of opposition by the State Department – the same State Department which, to date, has failed to designate any Countries of Particular Concern for egregious religious freedom violations since August 2011, despite being required by law to do so annually.

The administration’s opposition is short-sighted and, frankly, indefensible.

As we debate this legislation, Coptic Christians are leaving Egypt in droves.  As we debate this legislation, seven Baha’i leaders languish unjustly in an Iranian prison as does American citizen Saaed Abedini.  As we debate this legislation, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan are prohibited from voting and their graves are desecrated.  As we debate this legislation, Syrian Christians fear they too will be caught in the crossfire like Iraq’s Christians, or worse yet, like Iraq's Jew – that's right, I am told only a single Jew remains in the country where once a vibrant Jewish community flourished.

This legislation is supported by a diverse group of faith-based organizations, including the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Southern Baptist Convention and Christians United for Israel, among others, as well as a multitude of Diaspora organizations which are directly linked with the very people the Special Envoy would serve.

Will a special envoy guarantee these communities’ survival and even flourishing?  I do not know.  But I am certain that to do nothing is not an option, lest on this administration’s and this Congress’s watch we witness a Middle East emptied of ancient faith communities, foremost among them the “Sunday People.”

German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, faced with the tyranny of and horror of Nazism, famously said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act.”

I urge my colleagues to join me in sending an undeniable message to persecuted people of faith the world over, and just as importantly, to the forces that oppress them, that America – this shining city on a hill as envisioned by our founders – will not be silent in the face of evil.  Vote yes on H.R. 301.