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Rick PlastererAugust 31, 2012
The end of the Cold War saw an enormous advance in freedom, including especially freedom of religion against militantly anti-religious regimes. But the ensuing years have seen continuing difficulty for religious freedom, and arguably a worsening of threats to it. In the 1990s, many raised alarm about the continuing and largely unheralded persecution of Christians in the non-Western world, resulting in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
This act, overwhelmingly passed by Congress, established a religious freedom apparatus, including an Office of International Religious Freedom, an Ambassador at Large, an independent bi-partisan United States Commission on Religious Freedom, and a Special Advisor on International Religious Freedom in the National Security Council. The government actions possible under the act include highlighting of particularly egregious offender countries as “countries of particular concern,” diplomatic actions, and an Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. They serve to help ensure that religious freedom, the founding concern of America and arguably the most important issue of the Cold War, does not become submerged in media and public concern with the economy and international power politics. Although not high in the public mind, the work of the agencies established by the 1998 act is a resource for those concerned with ongoing violations of religious freedom.
The so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East has presented a challenge to religious freedom similar to the collapse of communism at the end of the Cold War. Initially regarded as an unprecedented popular effort for freedom against long-standing tyrannical Middle Eastern governments, the favor of many grassroots Muslim majorities for sharia or Islamic law threatens to make Christians and others, such as the suppressed Baha’is of Iraq and Iran and the Ahmadis of South Asia, even more harassed than prior to the fall of the old dictatorships.
Sadly current administration has been less than enthusiastic in for religious freedom as a foreign policy goal, leaving the office of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom open for more than two years of his presidency, before filling it in the spring of 2011. Later that year, the U.S. Copts Association published a review of the consequences of the Arab Spring for Christians living in the Middle East, noting the deteriorating situation for freedom and safety, including “the lack of solidarity in the West by the churches, governments, and media to the plight of the Christian minorities.” The attack and murder at a Coptic Church in Alexandria immediately preceding the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak uncharacteristically did garner international attention.
But more commonly news of such events circulate in the Christian subculture, not the mass media. A not uncommon story of persecution involves dubious allegations made by Muslims, followed by violence with Christian homes, businesses, and churches attacked, and the failure of security forces to act, as reported in a story carried by the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) in 2009.
Since the building or repair of churches in Egypt requires government permission (mosques can be built or repaired without it), Muslim agitators focus on preventing this, another flashpoint. In late 2011, AINA reported that 100,000 Copts had left Egypt. More generally, James Walsh, who was associate general counsel with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1983 to 1994, notes that the Administration has generally ignored instances of violence against Copts.
Another area of the Middle East where Christians are severely persecuted and their continued existence threatened is Iraq, which has lost half its Christian population through emigration since the Iraq War. AINA has well documented persecution of Assyrian Christians there in a series of reports, most recently from 2011 and 2010, as well as a particularly terrible al-Qaida massacre at Our Lady of Deliverance Chaldean Catholic Church in Bagdad on Oct. 31, 2010. It also noted the persecution of all religious minorities in Iraq in a 2011 report. Finally, the ongoing civil war in Syria presents yet another Middle East religious minorities crisis, as noted earlier this month in the Los Angeles Times.
In late January 2011, with the office of Ambassador at Large having been vacant for two years, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, one of the original authors of the 1998 act, sponsored legislation along with Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, to establish a Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. Several months later, on June 22, Sen. Roy Blount of Missouri and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan introduced a similar measure to the Senate on June 22.
The House measure passed the House in the summer of 2011 by an overwhelming majority, but has been stalled in the Senate by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, currently on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With the Administration, Sen. Webb maintains the Special Envoy proposal to be duplicative. Yet experience has shown the current Administration is not adequately addressing the nation’s religious freedom foreign policy objective. Advocates of religious freedom for persecuted minorities in the Middle East and South Asia, such as International Christian Concern and Open Doors USA, which immediately supported in the proposed Special Envoy continue to do so more than a year later.
While there is indeed an existing apparatus for the U.S. government to address its religious freedom foreign policy objective, both the Administration’s performance and the deteriorating situation for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Asia strongly indicate the need for an office to deal specifically with religious persecution in these regions.
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