By Faith J. H. McDonnell
Recently, U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf (R-VA) wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging the State Department not to block legislation on the creationof a special envoy to focus on persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. Introduced by Wolf and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the bipartisan bill, H.R. 440, to establish such a position passed overwhelmingly (402-20) in July 2011. But the legislation is being held up in the Senate by Foreign Relations Committee member Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) at the request of the State Department.
Wolf has a special passion for the persecuted. He and U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) were the first Western government officials ever allowed to enter a Soviet political labor camp. In 1989 they visited the notorious Perm Camp 35 in the Ural Mountains and met with 23 political prisoners and dissidents. In succeeding years Wolf has championed the human rights of the persecuted and oppressed from China to Sudan. His tenacious appeal for an intercessor for vulnerable populations in the increasingly Islamized Middle East and South Central Asia is just the latest of many fights for global justice and religious freedom that are now related in his autobiography, Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Global Human and Religious Rights.
In the October 25, 2012 letter to Clinton, Wolf warned that “time was running out — both in terms of the legislative calendar for this year and in terms of the plight of these communities.” Both the House-passed legislation and companion bill introduced by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Carl Levin (D-MI) are “languishing in the Senate.” The congressman, co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted that the introduction of the bill “pre-dated the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’” but that “the dramatic changes in the region over the year have only made these communities more vulnerable.”
Minority religious groups are at more risk than ever due to the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic supremacists. For instance, says Wolf:
• In Egypt, “roughly 8 million Coptic Christians live in fear, especially with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and various Islamist elements,and there is “widespread and virulent anti-Semitism in the government-controlled media.”
• Iraq’s “once vibrant Christian community has been halved from 2003 to the present day” and “large percentages of the country’s smallest religious minorities, including Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yezidis,” as well as the tiny Jewish population, “have fled the country in recent years, threatening these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.”
• “Shabbaz Bhatti – Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member – was gunned down in March 2011 for daring to challenge the blasphemy laws and for being outspoken on his defense of Asia Bibi, the young Christian mother of five, facing a possible death sentence on charges of blasphemy.”
• Seven Iranian Baha’i leaders were “falsely convicted of espionage and propaganda against the Islamic Republic in August 2010…They are currently serving a prison sentence of 20 years. . . . Baha’is are regarded as heretics by the Iranian regime, and particularly targeted and repressed. . . . Christians and converts from Islam are among the other groups that face the wrath of the regime.”
• “As the 15-month conflict rages with no end in sight, Syria’s many minorities have come face to face with the emerging threat posed by radical Sunni Islamists. These elements have established themselves as a key factor in Syria’s future, backed by immense political and economic support from the Arab world and indifference from the West.”
Among Senator Webb’s objections to the proposal for a special envoy was his discomfort with legislation moving forward without a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Wolf, along with many human rights organizations, repeatedly had urged committee chair Senator John Kerry (D-MA) to hold a hearing, but to no avail.
In a July 2012 letter to Webb, while praising the senator for his service to the country, Wolf agreed that if Webb was “unconvinced as to the merit” of the creation of a special envoy, he should vote against the legislation. “But, I would respectfully urge you not to deny other Senators that same opportunity – especially on a matter of such import,” Wolf said. He countered all of Webb’s objections to the legislation, which basically “parroted the concerns” of the State Department Bureau of Legislative Affairs’ position paper.
That State Department office concluded that Mr. Wolf’s bill “infringes on the Secretary’s flexibility to make appropriate staffing decisions.” They say that the bill “is unnecessary as it duplicates a number of ongoing activities at the Department being managed at the highest levels,” including the level of the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. They helpfully explained that this is a position created through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).
Writing to Webb, Wolf points out the irony that he was actually the author of IRFA, the legislation that created the Ambassador and the Office of International Religious Freedom. Not only that, but at the time, the State Department was vehemently opposed to that legislation and the creation of the Ambassador-at-Large, “and sought to undermine it at every turn.” Since that time, says Wolf, “successive administrations have marginalized the ambassador’s position, none more so than this administration.”
The State Department position paper also cites its pressure on the Iraqi government to improve security conditions for minority religious groups. For years Iraq’s Christian Assyrians have pleaded for funding to create their own security forces to protect vulnerable communities in the Nineveh Plain and elsewhere. State conveys the impression that conditions for Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq now are under control. But Wolf reveals that although “over multiple years, Congress directed the State Department and USAID to dedicate certain funds to help Iraq’s minority population. . . GAO found that these agencies couldn’t prove they spent the funds as Congress intended.” Perhaps they were using the funds to build madrassas?
“Given the widespread support for this bill, I still cannot understand why both the State Department and Senator Webb would want to block this bipartisan legislation from receiving a hearing and a vote,” Wolf writes. He warns that the “devastating trend” of persecution and flight by Middle East and South Central Asian religious minorities has “broader geopolitical implications” as well. “Religious pluralism is central to any vibrant democracy and religious minorities have historically been a moderating influence in these parts of the world,” he says.
“Despite the strategic imperative and the moral obligation to act, the State Department seems unable or unwilling to address the issue with the urgency it demands,” Wolf says. But some would argue that the problem is that the Middle East and South Central Asian religious minorities and their plight, and even the concept of a moderating influence, do not fit the Obama Administration’s narrative of the region. In this narrative, the Arab “Spring” provided the opportunity for a burgeoning democracy in Egypt, in Libya. In this narrative, Islamic blasphemy laws are as offensive to the U.S. government as they are to jihadists and Sharia enforcers. And in this narrative, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Iranian mullahs, and Al Qaeda operatives are equal partners in dialogue with the United States.
Just as admitting that Islamic jihadists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, attributing the targeting of religious minorities to Islam’s inherent opposition to all rivals disrupts the constructed narrative of the State Department and Obama Administration in general. Wolf warns that if we “do nothing” we will “witness a Middle East empty of faith communities.” To him, and to other defenders of human rights and religious freedom, that is an unthinkable tragedy. But it would be one less impediment in the flow of the narrative.
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