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U.S. House OKs religious liberty envoy

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring appointment of a special envoy for the promotion of religious liberty in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.

The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom entity hailed passage of the “forward-thinking legislation” as the “right thing.”

In a Sept. 18 roll call, House members voted 402-22 for the legislation, which would direct the president to name an envoy within the State Department to advance freedom for religious minorities in the Near East — also referred to as the Middle East — and South-Central Asia. The Senate has yet to act on the measure.

A two-fold reason undergirds Christian support of such legislation, said Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“Jesus told Saul of Tarsus that his intended persecution of Christians in Syria was persecution of Jesus himself. That’s one of the reasons the body of Christ must stand firm against the torture and harassment of believing communities in the Middle East and elsewhere,” Moore said in a statement to Baptist Press.

“Moreover, as Baptist Christians, we believe in religious freedom and liberty of conscience for all persons, not just for Christians and not just for Americans with First Amendment guarantees,” he said. “Religious liberty is a natural right, given by God and grounded in human dignity.”

Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., whom Moore called “heroic,” is lead sponsor of the bill, which the ERLC and a variety of other organizations have endorsed. Wolf also led in passage of a similar measure in 2011, when the House approved it by an almost identical vote, 402-20. The Senate — with the State Department leading the opposition, Wolf said — failed to vote on that bill.

All “no” votes in 2011 came from Republicans, and this year Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas joined 21 GOP members in opposing the legislation.

Individual Christians and adherents of other religious faiths are targets of repression and violence in countries in both regions, and the existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some areas — most notably Egypt and Iraq. Among its duties, a special envoy would monitor religious freedom conditions in the regions and recommend responses by Washington to violations of religious rights.

The bill mandates the special envoy will prioritize activities in five countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.

Wolf told his fellow House members before the vote he is convinced, “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 [the State Department] and abroad with foreign governments.”

He called the Obama administration’s opposition “short-sighted and, frankly, indefensible.”

Among examples of the results of oppression and persecution toward religious adherents cited by Wolf or the legislation’s text are:

— In Iraq, a drop since 2003 of Christians from 1.4 million to about 500,000 and of churches from more than 300 to about 60 produced by a mass exodus in the face of violence.

— In Iraq and Egypt, declines by the tens of thousands in the Jewish population.

— Also in Egypt, the reported flight of some of the country’s 8 million to 10 million Coptic Christians who are the targets of threats and violence at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.

— In Iran, the arrest of more than 500 Baha’is since 2005 and the continuing imprisonment of about 100 adherents of the religion.

— Also in Iran, the arrest and detention of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen. Prayer vigils involving more than 620,000 people in 70 U.S. cities will mark the Sept. 26 one-year anniversary of Saeed’s imprisonment, the American Center for Law and Justice reported.

— In Pakistan, violence against Ahmadi Muslims, an Islamic sect not recognized by the country’s laws, and the death sentence for a Christian mother of five charged with blasphemy.

— In Syria, the vulnerability of Christians and other religious minorities amid a civil war that is more than 2 years old.

Rep. Anna Eshoo of California is the lead Democratic sponsor for the bill, H.R. 301.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).