The “tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence, and terrorism” requires America to greatly strengthen its strategies, a letter to top congressional leaders declares, signed by a diverse group of religious, academic and public policy figures.
The global crisis threatens “dire consequences for religious minorities worldwide as well as for U.S. national security,” the signers of the letter warn.
Among the 31 signatories are Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC); California pastor Rick Warren; and Kenneth Starr, president of Baylor University.
The letter is addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Specifically, the signers of the letter call for the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom to have authority within the State Department “to develop an interagency strategy to protect global religious freedom, and the resources he needs to implement that strategy.”
The signers endorse H.R. 1150, named the “Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2015” for the retired Virginia congressman and longtime champion of global religious freedom.
In addition to providing authority to the ambassador for international religious freedom, a post held by David Saperstein since mid-December, provisions of H.R. 1150 include mandatory training “for all foreign service officers, deputy chiefs of mission, and country ambassadors” to “ensure that our diplomats fully understand and can effectively defend the free expression of religion worldwide, the enduring value of religious freedom and its relationship to national security, and how to advance the cause of religious liberty in our foreign policy.”
H.R. 1150 currently is before three House committees: Foreign Affairs; Oversight and Government Reform; and Financial Services.
The signers of the letter, who describe themselves as a bipartisan group of “religious leaders, public intellectuals and scholars,” lament that “religious minorities the world over are suffering unjust discrimination and unconscionable persecution.” But, they note, “the catastrophic state of international religious freedom affects more than the victims. It undermines the national security of the United States.
“Without religious freedom, aspiring democracies will remain unstable,” they note. “Economic growth and development will be more difficult to achieve. The advancement of the rights of women and girls will continue to be obstructed. Perhaps most important of all, religious terrorism will continue to be incubated, nourished, and exported.”
Their letter reminds that “over three-quarters of the world’s people live in countries where restrictions on religion are severe,” according to the Pew Research Center.
“Anti-Semitism is rising at an alarming rate in the Middle East and, most troubling of all, in Europe. Christians in the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa are being subjected to horrific violence. The very presence of the ancient Christian community in Iraq is at risk.”
(The full text of the letter and a recap of H.R. 1150’s various provisions follow this article.)
In addition to Moore, Warren and Starr, the letter’s signers include the Catholic archbishops of Washington and Philadelphia; cultural commentator and author Eric Metaxas; five current or former members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; former Sen. Joe Lieberman; and several Jewish, Muslim and Mormon officials.
The letter was dated July 14 and released to the public July 22.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which passed a resolution on persecution in June, endorsed the appeal to Congress’ top leaders.
“As I regularly learn of the deplorable and horrific acts taken against Christians globally, I am moved beyond words,” Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, told Baptist Press in written comments. “We hurt with, pray for, and share the deep burden of seeing these horrific and demonic actions cease against Christians around the world.”
Floyd recounted that upon being elected as SBC president in June 2014, “I began to address this issue, write about it and lead Christians to pray about religious persecution around the globe.” He rallied all of the SBC’s past living presidents to join in sending a letter to President Obama urging immediate actions against religious persecution as well as steps to preserve religious liberty globally.
“I have also spoken to many members of Congress about this issue who are Southern Baptists,” Floyd said. “Therefore, I am grateful for the letter written by the leaders urging Congress to strengthen our response to terrorism, forwarding religious liberty for all globally.”
Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, affirmed Russ Moore’s embrace of the letter, stating, “I join with our ERLC in support of this initiative to secure religious liberty worldwide.”
The SBC resolution titled “On The Persecuted Church Worldwide” encouraged government officials to “elevate religious liberty concerns to the highest priority in foreign policy, invoking sanctions against those nations which advocate or tolerate persecution of those with differing religious beliefs.” And it called on Americans “to refrain from international trade, even at the risk of financial loss, with or in nations that practice religious persecution.”
And the resolution called Southern Baptists “to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters continually in our personal prayer times and regularly in our corporate worship services and prayer gatherings, asking that God grant them endurance, deliverance, justice, and souls won to Christ through their faithful and sacrificial witness.”
The full text of the letter to congressional leaders follows:
July 14, 2015
The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Majority Leader of the Senate
The Honorable John Boehner
The Speaker of the House of Representatives
The Honorable Harry Reid
Minority Leader of the Senate
The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Minority Leader of the House of Representatives
United States Capitol
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Senator McConnell, Senator Reid, Mr. Speaker and Minority Leader Pelosi:
We write as a diverse group of religious leaders, public intellectuals and scholars to urge Congressional action on the issue of international religious persecution that threatens people of faith worldwide and our national security.
We are gratified that religious liberty will be a subject of discussion between President Obama and Pope Francis during the Pope’s visit to the White House this September. The attention of these two world leaders to this issue is both timely and urgent.
We are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence, and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious minorities and for the national security of the United States.
According to the non-partisan Pew Research Center, over three-quarters of the world’s people live in countries where restrictions on religion are severe. Anti-Semitism is rising at an alarming rate in the Middle East and, most troubling of all, in Europe. Christians in the Middle East, South and East Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa are being subjected to horrific violence. The very presence of the ancient Christian community in Iraq is at risk.
Muslim minorities, and disfavored members of Muslim majority communities, are increasingly subjected to persecution. Indeed, religious minorities the world over are suffering unjust discrimination and unconscionable persecution. But the catastrophic state of international religious freedom affects more than the victims. It undermines the national security of the United States. Without religious freedom, aspiring democracies will remain unstable. Economic growth and development will be more difficult to achieve. The advancement of the rights of women and girls will continue to be obstructed. Perhaps most important of all, religious terrorism will continue to be incubated, nourished, and exported.
In 1998 Congress passed – unanimously – the International Religious Freedom Act, which mandates the protection of religious freedom in America’s foreign policy. The policy created by that law has developed under three administrations of both parties. Four ambassadors at large for international religious freedom have served our country. We wish to express our support for the current ambassador at large, David Saperstein.
Ambassador Saperstein’s job is at once exceedingly important and exceedingly difficult. He must develop and implement a strategy for the United States to undermine religious persecution and protect the free exercise of religion in scores of nations around the world. And yet, notwithstanding the stakes involved, Ambassador Saperstein lacks both the authority to develop a national strategy and the resources to carry it out.
H.R. 1150 would remedy these deficiencies by amending the International Religious Freedom Act to give Ambassador Saperstein the status that other ambassadors at large at the Department of State enjoy, the authority to develop an interagency strategy to protect global religious freedom, and the resources he needs to implement that strategy. It would also mandate training for all foreign service officers, deputy chiefs of mission, and country ambassadors. This training would ensure that our diplomats fully understand and can effectively defend the free expression of religion worldwide, the enduring value of religious freedom and its relationship to national security, and how to advance the cause of religious liberty in our foreign policy.
We urge you to support H.R. 1150. This is not a partisan or party issue. The freedom to practice one’s religion without fear is the precious birthright of every human being, of whatever class, status, or location on the earth. It is also the providence of persons of faith, everywhere. Of all people, we Americans should be united in defending this human right – on behalf of those who suffer grievously for its absence, and for the noble and essential cause of protecting our own beloved country.
H.R. 1150 includes, according to a summary of at Congress.gov., congressional action that:
“Amends the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) to locate the Office on International Religious Freedom in the Office of the Secretary of State.
“Directs the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to seek to coordinate religious freedom policies and religious engagement strategies across all U.S. programs, projects, and activities.
“Specifies additional foreign government actions violating religious freedom for the Ambassador’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, including a Special Watch List of countries or violent nonstate actors that have engaged in or tolerated such violations but do not yet meet the criteria for designation as countries of particular concern for religious freedom.
“Amends the Foreign Service Act of 1980 to direct the Secretary to develop a curriculum for, and the Director of the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center to begin, mandatory training on religious freedom for all Foreign Service officers.
“Amends IRFA to require the Commission on International Religious Freedom 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.
“Amends the National Security Act of 1947 to direct the President to appoint in 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) who shall assist the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to coordinate executive branch international religious freedom policies and global religion engagement strategies.
“Establishes within the National Security Council: (1) the Interagency Policy Committee on Religious Freedom and Engagement; and (2) the Interagency Policy Committee on Religion, International Religious Freedom, and National Security.
“Amends IRFA to revise requirements, including reporting requirements, for presidential actions with respect to country and violent nonstate actor designations, in particular those countries on the Special Watch List.
“Declares the sense of Congress that:
* ongoing and persistent waivers for designated countries, especially those engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom, do not fulfill IRFA purposes; and
* the President, the Secretary, and other executive branch officials, in consultation with Congress, should seek to find ways to address existing violations, on a country-by-country basis, through specified actions.
“States that it should be U.S. policy that violent nonstate actors should be eligible for designation as countries of particular concern and that specified presidential actions should apply to them or individual members of such groups.
“Authorizes the President to take specified actions against foreign persons: (1) responsible for committing or supporting systemic violations of religious freedom, or (2) supporting violence or terrorist acts targeting members of religious groups.
“Declares the sense of Congress about: (1) adoption of codes of conduct by U.S. institutions of higher education outside the United States, and (2) national security strategy to promote religious freedom through U.S. foreign policy.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)