Washington, D.C. (July 17, 2012) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) is blocking legislation that will create a special envoy to protect the freedoms of religious minorities, including Christians, in the Near East and South Central Asia. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the co-author of the legislation, has demanded that the hold be lifted—despite strong opposition by the State Department—before the “Middle East [is] emptied of ancient faith communities.”
The bipartisan bill (H.R. 440) to create a special envoy to promote the religious freedom of minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia passed by an overwhelming 402-20 vote in the House last summer despite the State Department's objection. However, the legislation’s companion in the Senate (S. 1245) has been blocked from being considered by Sen. Webb—a prominent voice on Asia policy—who contends that the bill will overlap current offices dedicated to religious freedom abroad while also limiting resources for those agencies.
“After considering the legislation, Senator Webb asked the State Department for its analysis,” Webb spokesman Will Jenkins said in a statement. “In [its] position paper, the State Department explains why it believes a new special envoy position would be 'unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counterproductive'.”
Wolf, however, insists that more needs to be done to help religious minorities; if the current state of religious freedom was acceptable, then there would be no need to push for the measure.
“Coptic Christians, Baha’is, Chaldo-Assyrians, Ahmadis, small remaining Jewish population and countless other religious minorities throughout the Middle East and South Central Asia who face daily persecution, hardship, violence, instability and even death would be hard-pressed to see your objection to this straight-forward, bipartisan legislation,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Webb, made public on July 11, urging the Senator to reconsider his position. “Will a special envoy guarantee these communities’ survival – and even flourishing – in the lands they have inhabited for centuries? I do not know. But I am certain, that to do nothing is not an option – lest on this administration’s and this Congress’ watch we witness a Middle East emptied of ancient faith communities, foremost among them the beleaguered Christian community.”
In Egypt, more than 80 Christians were killed in 2011 as a result of increased violence targeting religious minorities, including the murder of 12 Christians by an Islamist mob in the Imbaba district of Cairo on May 7 and the killing of 27 Christian protestors in Maspero, Cairo by the military on October 30. In Iraq, dozens of churches have been bombed and more than half of the Christian population has fled the country following the US-led invasion in 2003. If passed, Wolf’s legislation will promote the religious rights of minorities, denounce violations on religious freedom, and recommend appropriate responses by the U.S. in countries throughout the Near East and South Central Asia, all but three of which are listed in the Open Doors 2012 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.
“I once again urge you, on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced, to reconsider your position,” Wolf concluded his letter to Webb. “Time is running out.”
International Christian Concern’s Advocacy Officer, Ryan Morgan, said, “The situation for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia is becoming increasingly precarious. In October 2010, 58 Christian worshippers were killed during a siege at a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, making it the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians in recent history. On New Year’s 2011, 23 Christians were killed by a suicide bomber while leaving mass at a Coptic Church in Alexandria, Egypt. And in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries in which America has invested its money and the lives of its soldiers, persecution of Christians runs rampant. This bipartisan legislation, if passed, will establish a Special Envoy to address the economic and security concerns of religious minorities by monitoring and combating acts of religious intolerance. As religious minorities flee the Near East and South Central Asia in unprecedented numbers for a safe haven in the West, threatening the very existence of ancient Christian communities throughout the region, the time for debate over America’s response has ended. Action must be taken now, before it’s too late.”
ICC is urging readers to call Senator Jim Webb’s office immediately at 202-224-4024 and to ask him to release his call back on S. 1245.