The initiative had been stuck since mid-2011, thanks to a “hold” placed on it by a former senator acting on the recommendation of the Obama administration. Supporters of the measure also criticized the then-chairman of the committee – now Secretary of State – John Kerry -- for disregarding requests to hold hearings.
On Wednesday, the committee, now chaired by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), passed the bill – “unanimously … with the chairman’s support,” a spokesman confirmed.
This legislation was authored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and co-sponsored by 14 Republicans and five Democrats including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Blunt afterwards urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “to allow a vote to demonstrate to leaders in the region that the United States takes religious freedom seriously.”
“The continued violence we’ve witnessed against Coptic Christians and other civilians in the Middle East is deeply disturbing and defies the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear,” he said.
The vote was also welcomed by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who together with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) – a Chaldean Catholic – co-authored companion legislation passed in the House by overwhelming margins in mid-2011 and again last September.
Praising passage of the bill “after seeing it languish in the Senate for too long,” Wolf singled out Blunt, Levin, Menendez, committee ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), as well as Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Kaine chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Near East and South and Central Asia, the regions specifically identified in the legislation as being in need of a special envoy’s attention.
“The recent story about the likely kidnapping of Catholic nuns in Syria is just the latest example of an escalating epidemic of religious persecution in the Middle East,” he said in welcoming the vote.
“Attacks on Christians, Jews, Baha’i, Ahmadiyya Muslims and other religious minorities are occurring with greater frequency,” Kaine added.
“The United States can and should play a key role in exposing these human rights violations and working to promote religious liberty in a region that is the birthplace for so many of the world’s faith traditions.”
Kaine’s predecessor as junior senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, was the Democrat who placed the earlier hold on the special envoy measure. Webb attributed his decision to do so to 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.”
At the time Wolf criticized both Webb for blocking progress, and Kerry who he said had disregarded his “repeated requests for a vote or hearing” on the legislation.
During a Capitol Hill hearing last June focusing on the plight of Syrian Christians, deputy assistant secretary Thomas Melia confirmed the administration’s ongoing opposition.
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.”
(Created under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the post of ambassador-at-large was unfilled for the first 18 months of President Obama’s first term before he nominated Suzan Johnson Cook, a prominent Baptist pastor, in mid-2010. She was eventually confirmed by the Senate in April 2011. Cook recently resigned, and the post is again vacant.)
The bill passed by the Senate committee calls for the president to appoint as envoy “a person of recognized distinction in the field of human rights and religious freedom and with expertise in the Near East and South Central Asia.”
The ambassador-rank post should coordinate with the ambassador-at-large and relevant State Department officials, it says.
Tasks include promoting religious freedom for religious minorities in the targeted regions, recommending appropriate U.S. government responses to violations, monitoring and combating “acts of religious intolerance and incitement” against religious minorities, and working with foreign governments to address laws that discriminate against religious minorities.
Christians ‘under siege’
While the Senate measure does not identify specific targeted countries in the Middle East and South Central Asia regions, the House bill gives priority to Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In all five of those countries, governments promote and/or condone policies discriminatory towards Christians as well as other religious minorities – including sects of Islam not recognized by the ruling authorities.
Christians are disproportionately impacted by laws outlawing blasphemy and “apostasy” – conversion from Islam to another faith.
Of those five prioritized countries only one, Iran, is currently designated as a “country of particular concern” under the IRFA. Designation allow the government to use sanctions or other measures in a bid to induce improvements in their treatment of religious minorities.
“As millions of professing Christians around the world anticipate celebrating the birth of Christ – a birth marked by its humble beginnings in a small Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem – religious minorities throughout this region, including ancient Christian communities, are under siege,” Wolf said Wednesday.
“Passage of this legislation, while modest in scope, may provide some glimmer of hope that their plight has not been forgotten and that their suffering has prompted action.”
Wolf, a veteran advocate for religious freedom on Capitol Hill, announced this week he will not seek re-election next year, but instead plans “to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom – both domestic and international – as well as matters of the culture and the American family.”