House Passes Upgraded International Religious Freedom Law

Lauretta Brown | May 18, 2016 | 10:14am EDT
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Parents come to the altar for their children to be baptized during the service at the Our Lady of Consolation Church, which was attacked with grenades by militants almost three years ago, in Garissa, Kenya. (AP Photo)

( – The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act Monday afternoon, which upgrades the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 giving the administration and the State Department new resources to help combat the worldwide escalation in persecution of religious minorities.

The bill’s author Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said upon the bill’s passage that “the world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis of international religious freedom, a crisis that continues to create millions of victims.”

The legislation would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) to “locate the Office on International Religious Freedom in the Office of the Secretary of State” and include “mandatory training on religious freedom for all Foreign Service officers.”

The bill would also create “a Designated Persons List of individuals sanctioned for participating or directing religious freedom abuses,” and would create a “tier system” for International Religious Freedom reports on countries of particular concern (CPC) and a special watch list to identify countries with religious freedom violations that do not yet meet the criteria to receive a CPC designation.

Under the new legislation, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom would be required “to compile and make publicly available regularly updated lists of persons imprisoned, detained, disappeared, placed under house arrest, tortured, or subject to forced renunciations of faith by: (1) a foreign government recommended for designation as a country of particular concern for religious freedom, or (2) a violent nonstate actor.”

The president is also directed by the bill to appoint to the National Security Council a “Special Adviser for Global Religion Engagement and International Religious Freedom (in lieu of the Special Adviser to the President on International Religious Freedom)” to “coordinate executive branch international religious freedom policies and global religion engagement strategies.”

Smith named the bill after former Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf, who authored the original 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created the International Religious Freedom office in the U.S. State Department and the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“Nearly 20 years ago, led by US Congressman Frank R. Wolf, the Congress had the foresight to make advancing the right to religious freedom a high U.S. foreign policy priority. Today religious freedom is still under attack and we must upgrade our programs and methods to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Smith said.

The bill was cosponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who applauded its passage in the House Monday.

“The House of Representatives voted to upgrade the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, to better address the religious freedom and violent extremism problems being experienced in the 21st century,” Eshoo said.

“From the founding of our nation, religious freedom has been a pillar of our democracy and it remains one of the most cherished values of our country. This bill will improve U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom globally; better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism; address persecution; mitigate conflict and help the Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom to coordinate religious freedom efforts,” she said.

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