U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) is calling for the creation of a special State Department envoy to focus on the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.
“Religious pluralism is central to any vibrant democracy and religious minorities have historically been a moderating influence in these parts of the world,” he said in an Oct. 25 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Wolf pointed to legislation to create an envoy that passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives in July 2011. The bill was proposed by Republicans and drew bipartisan support, passing by a vote of 402-20 without a single Democratic vote in opposition.
Although it has been more than a year since the House passed this legislation, it has not progressed in the Senate, he said, calling it “disappointing” that the State Department has urged Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) to put a hold on the bill to prevent it from moving forward.
Webb has said that he is uncomfortable with the legislation progressing without a hearing in the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Wolf observed.
“I have no objection to such a hearing, and would welcome it,” he said, adding that he wrote to committee chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) in July requesting a hearing, which was never held.
He suggested that the religious minorities who face persecution and even death on a daily basis in the Middle East and South Central Asia “would be hard-pressed to see your objection to this straight-forward, bipartisan legislation.”
Wolf also observed that the legislation has gained the support of religious freedom advocates and groups representing persecuted communities in strategically important countries, including the American Islamic Congress, Open Doors USA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
“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,” he said.
A special envoy is needed now more than ever, Wolf emphasized, particularly since “the dramatic changes in the region over the last year have only made these communities more vulnerable.”
He warned of “a devastating trend” of violence and persecution against religious minorities in the Middle East, including millions of Coptic Christians. This violence will have “broader geopolitical implications,” he said.
More than 30,000 people are estimated to have been killed in ongoing Syrian violence, while “the administration seems unable to muster much more than empty rhetoric,” he noted.
In Iraq, the congressman added, the “once vibrant” Christian community has been cut in half since 2003, as thousands have fled the country and now face violence in the ghettos of nearby nations.
He also recalled the assassination of Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet member, in March 2011 “for daring to challenge the blasphemy laws” in the country. Wolf said that he had repeatedly asked the State Department to provide an armored vehicle for Shabbaz due to repeated threats leading up to the murder. However, these requests went unanswered, he said.
“And yet, 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,” he asserted.
Stressing that “to do nothing is not an option,” Wolf voiced his concern “that time is running out – both in terms of the legislative calendar for this year and in terms of the plight of these communities.”
He cautioned that a continued lack of action could result in “a Middle East empty of faith communities, foremost among them the beleaguered Christian community.”
“It is important that the State Department prioritizes these issues and actively works to sustain the presence of religious minorities in the region,” he said, “particularly during such a critical time of transition in the broader Middle East.”