The Obama administration opposes the legislation, and the previous bill died in the Senate after a Democratic senator placed a hold on it, citing State Department advice, and then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) declined to hold hearings on the matter.
The bill, introduced by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) passed Wednesday by a vote of 402-22, an almost identical result to the 2011 vote, which was 402-20.
Wolf urged swift action in the Senate this time.
In a speech on the House floor, he called the administration’s opposition to the establishment of the special envoy post “short-sighted and, frankly, indefensible.”
“Last Congress, this legislation overwhelmingly passed the House only to stall in the Senate in the face of opposition by the State Department – the same State Department which, to date, has failed to designate any ‘countries of particular concern’ for egregious religious freedom violations since August 2011, despite being required by law to do so annually,” he said.
Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the administration is required to identify “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) which may then sanctions or other measures in a bid to induce improvements in their treatment of religious minorities.
Although the law requires this to occur “not later than September 1 of each year,” the Obama administration has only done so once – more than 31 months after taking office – and not since.
Among the countries which religious freedom advocates have long urged the administration to designate as CPCs are those identified as priorities in the Wolf-Eshoo bill. Of the five, only Iran is currently on the CPC list – where it has been since being first designated by the Clinton administration in 1999.
In all five of the identified priority countries, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Christians are arguably the minority most seriously impacted by policies which the government either promotes, condones or both. Others include Baha’is, Ahmadis, Hindus and Shia.
“As we debate this legislation, Coptic Christians are leaving Egypt in droves,” Wolf said on the House floor. “As we debate this legislation, seven Baha’i leaders languish unjustly in an Iranian prison as does American citizen Saaed Abedini. As we debate this legislation, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan are prohibited from voting and their graves are desecrated. As we debate this legislation, Syrian Christians fear they too will be caught in the crossfire like Iraq’s Christians, or worse yet, like Iraq’s Jew – that’s right, I am told only a single Jew remains in the country where once a vibrant Jewish community flourished.”
Wolf said he does not know whether a special envoy would guarantee that these communities survive or flourish. “But I am certain that to do nothing is not an option, lest on this administration’s and this Congress’s watch we witness a Middle East emptied of ancient faith communities, foremost among them the ‘Sunday People’ [Christians].”
Eshoo, an Assyrian-American who traces her heritage to Iraq’s indigenous Christian population, said a special envoy the bill seeks to create would “help develop policy options to ensure the protection and preservation of these ancient faith communities, as well as serving as a high-level advocate within our own government and with foreign governments. The history of violence against religious minorities must not be allowed to repeat itself.”
When the special envoy legislation first passed the House in July 2011 a Muslim Brotherhood leader said Egyptians were “capable of handling their affairs without external interference.”
When the bill moved to the Senate, then-Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) placed a hold on it, citing advice from the State Department, which argued that the post would be unnecessary, duplicate existing efforts, and “likely counterproductive.”
The department said senior diplomats including the secretary of state and ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom consistently raise religious freedom concerns, and that the special envoy bill would infringe on the secretary’s “flexibility to make appropriate staffing decisions.”
Wolf at the time criticized both Webb and Kerry, now secretary of state, for disregarding his “repeated requests for a vote or hearing” on the legislation.
During a hearing on Capitol Hill last June examining the plight of Syrian Christians, Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary in the State’s Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, confirmed that the administration remains opposed.
The ambassador-at-large and other staff, he said, were “able to address these issues and we don’t need an additional envoy at this point.”