U.S. Move to Create Envoy for Religious Freedom Seen as Meddling by Islamists

August 3, 2011 - 4:29 AM

Iraq Christians attacked

Iraqis inspect the site of an early morning car bomb attack in front of a Church in Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011. Scores of people were injured in the attack, police said. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)

(CNSNews.com) – A vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom in parts of the Middle East and South Asia is causing ripples in Egypt, where a Muslim Brotherhood leader says the decision amounts to more U.S. “interference” in Egypt’s affairs.

Concerns about the plight of Egypt’s Christian minority – along with those in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular – featured prominently in hearings leading up to the passage of the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act on Friday.

The Senate has yet to vote on a related measure, but passage is considered likely. The Senate bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and co-sponsored by a Republican and two Democrats.

The legislation calls for the president to appoint an envoy, serving within the State Department at the ambassadorial level, to promote religious freedom for minorities in specified countries in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, recommending appropriate responses to violations.

The envoy will also be expected to support minority communities, to work with governments abroad to address discriminatory laws, and to represent the U.S. government in contacts with foreign governments and organizations including the United Nations.

Since the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak, Coptic Christians and churches have come under attack and faced harassment and threats, prompting fears for the future as elections draw nearer.

On Tuesday, the vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Freedom and Justice Party,” Rafiq Habib, criticized the plan to appoint an envoy.

The Muslim Brotherhood Web site cited him as saying that U.S. lawmakers’ concerns for the safety of Copts and other minorities in Egypt were uncalled for and that Egyptians were “capable of handling their affairs without external interference.”

Habib was quoted further as saying that “the people will no longer accept meddling in their affairs and will not accept other entities to dictate for them how to decide for their future.”

Attacks, bombings, apostasy and blasphemy laws

Passage of the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act followed hearings of the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in January and March focusing on persecution of Christians in Egypt and Iraq as well as other religious minorities including Baha’is and Ahmadis in Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere.

The legislation names 31 mostly Muslim-majority countries – 18 in the Near East and 13 in South and Central Asia – where the envoy should focus his or her attention, but calls for priority to be given to four countries – Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Iraq Christians

Iraqi policemen stand guard outside a Protestant church in Baghdad in September 2010. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

It points to bombings and other attacks against Christians in Egypt and Iraq; apostasy cases in Afghanistan; and abuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, including the case of Asia Bibi, the first Pakistani Christian woman to be sentenced to death for “blaspheming” Mohammed.

The text also refers briefly to anti-Semitism, citing “Holocaust glorification” in Middle East media.

Speaking on the House floor ahead of the vote Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who authored the bill, said persecution of Christians was rampant in Afghanistan and Pakistan – “countries where the United States has invested its treasure and the lives of countless brave American soldiers.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) called the fate of Egypt’s Christian minority “the bellwether of the rights for religious minorities in the Middle East.”

Lead Democratic sponsor Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), a Chaldean Catholic, said that “as the daughter of Assyrian and Armenian immigrants who fled the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, it’s terrifying to see history repeating itself in today’s Iraq. I'm hopeful that the special envoy created by this legislation will elevate the crisis of the Middle East’s religious minorities, giving them the diplomatic attention they so badly need and deserve.”

(A car bomb exploded outside a Syrian Catholic church in Iraq’s northern Iraq city of Kirkuk on Tuesday, injuring at least 23 people. Two car bombs were found and defused at separate Christian locations in the area.)

Worst places in the world to be a Christian

The 31 countries identified in the religious freedom legislation are:

In the Middle East – Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, as well as the West Bank and Gaza; and in South and Central Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Many of those countries are considered by religious freedom advocates to be among the most dangerous places to be a Christian or other religious minority.

On the 2011 Open Doors USA’s World Watch list, 12 of the top 20 countries named are among those cited in the legislation. They are – in descending order of the assessed level of persecution – Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives, Yemen, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Bhutan, Turkmenistan, Qatar and Egypt.

Of Christian Freedom International’s list of the top 10 countries where persecution takes place, seven are named in the measure – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The House legislation, which authorized $1 million a year for the envoy and staffing through 2015, passed by 402 votes to 20.

The 20 “no” votes all came from Republicans – mostly anti-government spending hawks. They were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Paul Broun (Ga.), Michael Burgess (Texas), Blake Farenthold (Texas), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Bill Flores (Texas), Tom Graves (Ga.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Steve King (Iowa), Raul Labrador (Idaho), Tom McClintock (Calif.), Mick Mulvaney (S.C.), Ron Paul (Texas), Bill Posey (Fla.), Reid Ribble (Wisc.), Marlin Stutzman (Ind.), Joe Walsh (Ill.), Allen West (Fla.), Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) and Rob Woodall (Ga.)