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Bill to name religious freedom envoy to Middle East, Central Asia on hold

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

An illuminated cross is seen as Syrian Christians celebrate Holy Cross Day in Ma'loula, Syria on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009. Christians make up some 13 percent of Syria's 20 million population. Recently Syria has become a hotspot for religious minorities, and a bill in the U.S. Senate that would instruct the Obama administration to name an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom in the Middle East and Central Asia would seek to strengthen America's voice concerning religious freedoms for these minorities.

Bassem Tellawi, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A bill intended to strengthen America's voice in the Middle East and Central Asia on the subject of religious freedoms for minority believers passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December but languishes under two holds placed by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Lee's hold — which an aide said was "just to signal that you’d like to have a discussion about it with the sponsor of the bill before it moves to the next step by unanimous consent" — could be lifted after a conversation with sponsor, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., something Lee spokesman Brian Phillips said the Utah lawmaker is "prepared" to do.

At issue may be the question of spending money to support a new, region-specific envoy when the State Department already has a position for an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom that remains vacant. That post was created in 1998, and its third and most recent appointee, Suzan Johnson Cook, resigned in October 2013 after nearly 30 months on the job, according to Religion News Service. Earlier this month, President Obama said he "look(s) forward" to naming a replacement, but has yet to do so.

"In a perfect world, the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom would fulfill this role with energy and effectiveness," said Thomas F. Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project and the Program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. "We have no ambassador-at-large (now), and so far, there is little reason to be confident that the State Department will pursue this issue. Given that shortcoming, I support this bill, simply because the job is too important to be left undone."

The new envoy would be based in the State Department and, unlike the at-large post, would be charged with a policy role, said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank. Noting the travails of religious minorities in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, Shea, a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said this is a crucial moment for religious minorities in both regions.

"On our watch, we're seeing an area of the world, the Middle East, the crossroads of many civilizations become religiously cleansed, engaging in religious cleansing that's going to culminate in the eradication of the non-Muslim minorities. It's unconscionable that the United States would just stand by and do nothing about it," she said.

Persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and central Asia has accelerated in recent years, particularly since the "Arab Spring" swept the Middle East in 2011, Shea noted. Egypt's Coptic Christians, Syria's Christian minority and Baha'is in Iraq have all been subject to increasing persecution, imprisonment and violent attacks, including murder. In Pakistan, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Hindus and Christians have all come under siege, often by opponents wielding the country's strict blasphemy laws as a cudgel. In January, the Pew Research Center reported, "The Middle East and North Africa was the most common region for sectarian violence; half of all countries in the region in 2012 experienced this type of violence."

At least one religious liberty advocate, however, supported the holds placed on the bill.

"I'm glad to see the hold," said Joseph K. Grieboski, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Alexandria, Va. Creating a separate position "highlights only certain countries, sending a message that sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the former Soviet Union don't matter, and that those (areas' religious liberty) problems are secondary. It takes resources and staffing from IRF office when they're at their lowest levels yet."

Others disagree. Melissa Reid, executive director of the North American Religious Liberty Association in Silver Spring, Md., said having more than one religious liberty ambassador would bring more pressure to bear on the overall question.

"There can't be too much attention in regard to what's happening," Reid told the Deseret News. "There's too much going on and we're sitting by and idly watching. There can't be enough eyes on what's happening. This (proposed) position may have more influence than what we have previously seen with what the previous religious freedom ambassador was given."

A Coburn spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the hold situation.

Blunt's bill mirrors one passed last September in the House. Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, and Anna Eshoo, D-California, sponsored that bill, as they had two years earlier. The 2011 measure also died in the Senate, thanks to a hold placed by then-Sen. James Webb, D-Virginia, who Wolf said acted at the behest of then-Sen. John Kerry, now the secretary of state.

Speaking on the House floor after the vote there, Wolf said the measure had support from, among others, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Southern Baptist Convention and Christians United for Israel.

And, months after the House passage, Wolf remained passionate about the issue: "I don't know why anyone would oppose the bill," Wolf said in a telephone interview Feb. 27. "If you look at the state of religious minorities in the Middle East and the Christians in Syria," the bill's necessity is clear, he added.

Wolf noted the intense persecution of Christian minorities in Nasaria, an Iraqi town close to the ancient sites of Ur of the Chaldeans, the burial site of Old Testament prophet Daniel and the hometown of Esther, whose heroic efforts saved the Jews in ancient Persia, now Iran. "There's a saying in the Middle East" about persecution, Wolf said: “ ‘First the Saturday people,’ ” meaning Jews, “ ‘then the Sunday people,’ ” referring to Christians. Today's persecution, he added, means that were he alive today, St. Paul "could not ride on the road to Damascus and meet Ananias on Straight Street."

Although the Obama administration was not in favor of the measure, Wolf said he believes the president would sign the bill if it passes both houses of Congress. At the same time, the veteran lawmaker acknowledges that having a special religious freedom envoy for the region would be a first step and not a final one.

"I do not say that this would solve the problem," Wolf said. Naming an envoy would create "a place (of contact) for many of the (minority religious) groups (in these regions), who can't understand why the West is not speaking out. The right special envoy can make a difference," he added.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

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