The Southern Baptist Convention’s lead advocate for religious freedom has called on two conservative Republican senators to permit a vote on legislation designed to protect adherents of minority faiths in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.
Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and Richard Pates of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) asked Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah in a March 4 letter to lift their hold on a bill that would authorize presidential appointment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed similar legislation in September with a 402-22 roll call, but the hold placed reportedly by Coburn and Lee has prevented the opportunity for a floor vote on the Senate version under the chamber’s rules.
The appeal to the senators came less than a week after another joint letter endorsed by Moore urged President Obama to promote religious liberty internationally and protect it domestically.
The special envoy to be established by the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, S. 653, is needed “to focus on the dire situation affecting religious minorities, especially Christians who are the group most targeted for harassment and attacks in the largest number of countries,” Moore and Pates said in their letter.
Christians and adherents of other religious faiths increasingly are targets of repression and violence in countries in both the Near East – also known as the Middle East – and South Central Asia. The existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some areas – most notably Egypt and Iraq.
In their letter, Moore and Pates – who is chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace – pointed to the civil war in Syria as an example of assaults in the Near East on religious adherents. More than eight million Syrians, many of them Christians, “are caught in the cross-fire between the government and opposition forces, and have fled their homes, becoming internally displaced or flooding into neighboring countries,” they told Coburn and Lee.
Other attacks in recent years on religious minorities cited by Moore and Pates were the destruction of Coptic churches in Egypt and the targeting of Christian villages by Hindu extremists in India.
“In many instances, religious minorities have lived for centuries side by side with those of other faiths, but now find themselves coming under increased attack and harassment,” they wrote.
Among his duties, a special envoy would monitor religious freedom conditions in the regions and recommend responses by Washington to violations of religious rights.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee easily approved the proposal in December. Sen. Roy Bount, R.-Mo., is the sponsor of the bill, which has 22 cosponsors.
Coburn refuses to support the bill because he considers it unnecessary, he told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a February 2013 letter. He said the special envoy position duplicates that of the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, according to the letter provided by Coburn’s staff.
“[T]he creation of this duplicative position will ultimately do nothing to hold the [Obama] Administration accountable for its continued failure to fulfill the legal mission established under [the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act] and our moral obligations to support freedom for religious minorities worldwide, as the bill’s supporters intend,” Coburn wrote.
Instead of passing another bill, Congress should hold the administration and State Department “directly accountable for their failure,” he said.
Baptist Press requested comments from Lee’s office, but none were received before the deadline for this article.
One difference in the House and Senate versions of the proposal is the House bill mandates the special envoy will prioritize activities in the countries of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.
In 2011, the House passed a bill that was similar to the one it approved in September, but the Senate failed to vote on that legislation. The Obama administration’s State Department led opposition to the measure in 2011, said the House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va.
The ERLC’s Moore joined nine others in a Feb. 26 letter to Obama thanking him for his advocacy of religious liberty overseas in his Feb. 6 remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast. They applauded his words of support for imprisoned Christians Saeed Abedini in Iran and Kenneth Bae in North Korea, as well as his promise to appoint soon an ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
They also urged the president to guard religious liberty in the United States.
“Some Americans are concerned that your administration’s domestic policies do not fully protect the religious convictions of all our citizens,” they said in the letter. “Your leadership abroad will be strongest as you point to the robust religious freedom protection that is provided even to those who may be critics of your administration.”
Among their complaints, religious liberty advocates have been especially dismayed by the Obama administration’s refusal to reverse its abortion/contraception mandate or provide adequate conscience protections as part of the regulation. The mandate, which is part of the implementation of the 2010 health-care law, requires employers to provide contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs for their workers.
The letter signers included Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington; and Dwayne Leslie, director of legislative affairs for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)