January 31, 2013

Will the United States Fight Religious Persecution?

By: Jillian Kay Melchior

Religious freedom continues to decline around the world, and persecution is on the rise. In September, The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that three-fourths of the global population—more than 5 billion people—live in countries with “high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion.”

Across large portions of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Christianity is a particularly dangerous faith to claim. In the past four years examined by Pew, they faced harassment in more countries than any other religious group, including Jews and Muslims. And in more than 65 countries, Christians face significant persecution, according to a new report from Open Doors, a U.S.-based organization that monitors religious oppression. Furthermore, a new report from Texas-based ChinaAid highlights some of the difficulties Christians faced last year in China.

With this in mind, Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif, have proposed that the U.S. State Department have a special envoy for vulnerable religious minorities. (The idea has a precedent, as Wolf has pointed out; already, the U.S. has a Sudan special envoy and a North Korea envoy to monitor human-rights violations.)

Govtrack.us gives the bill only a 26 percent chance of getting past committee, and a 7 percent chance of being enacted.

In 2011, Wolf and Enshoo introduced a similar bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support in the House.

But the bill languished in the Senate, despite the support of diverse organizations including the American Islamic Congress, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the United Kingdom Human Rights Law Foundation, the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, the International Institute for Religious Freedom, the Jubilee Campaign, Open Doors, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 112th Congress, chaired by incoming Secretary of State John Kerry, refused to so much as hold a hearing on the legislation. Meanwhile, the State Department protested that the position would be “unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counterproductive.”

Wolf disagrees with the State Department’s assessment. In a July 2012 letter to Sen. James Webb, D-Va., he wrote “if I believed that religious minorities . . . were getting the attention warranted at the State Department, I would cease in pressing for the passage of this legislation. Sadly, that is far from the case. We must act now.”

Wolf has good reason to be concerned. President Obama set the tone for his administration early, when he first avoided the Dalai Lama, and later ushered him out the side door of the White House, past the trash pile. In keeping, last summer, the State Department dropped the section on religious freedom from its annual Country Reports on Human Rights.

The fate of this legislation will be a good indication of whether President Obama, John Kerry, and the Democrats in the Senate are willing to take religious freedom seriously. But if Obama’s first term is any indication, imperiled believers will have to wait out another four years of U.S. silence.

Jillian Melchior writes for National Review and was a 2011 Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation. Image of the Dalai Lama courtesy of Big Stock Photo.