The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) lead religious freedom advocate is part of a widely diverse, informal coalition urging Congress to strengthen protections for the rights of people of faith overseas.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, signed on to a letter sent April 14 to members of a House of Representatives subcommittee seeking their support for the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The bill, which will update the original IRFA of 1998, is designed to enhance the United States’ ability to promote religious freedom globally. It also will reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) through 2021.
In the letter, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable says approval of the legislation is “not only the right thing to do but it is in our vital self-interest to do so.” The letter provides three reasons:
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom image
As perhaps the premier fundamental human right, religious liberty offers the basis for a secure democracy, including such elements as economic growth and female empowerment.
Religious freedom is “the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon,” thwarting religious fanaticism in advance.
Religious liberty globally is in crisis, with 77 percent of the world’s population living in countries with high levels of religious restriction, according to the Pew Research Center.
By enacting the measure, America “will send a clear and urgent message regarding the inherent dignity of every human being, as well as our common global security in the fight against persecution and religious extremism, and terrorism,” according to the letter.
As examples of people failing to live peacefully with religious differences, the signers point to the recent genocide of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State and the conflict in Ukraine that is marked by religious strains.
Elements of the legislation, according to a summary, are:
Increased authority within the State Department for the ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Mandated religious liberty training for all new foreign service officers, as well as ambassadors going to new posts.
Establishment of a “tier system,” with automatic demotion to the classification of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for governments on a “special watch list” for three consecutive years or a total of four years. The CPC list is reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.
Elevation to senior director of a post on international religious liberty at the National Security Council.
Requirement of the State Department to maintain lists of and advocate for religious prisoners.
In addition to Moore, other individuals who signed the letter were Lauren Homer of Law and Liberty Trust; Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern; Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; and Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement.
Among the organizations that endorsed the letter were Open Doors USA, Home School Legal Defense Association, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Christian Solidarity Worldwide-UK, Coptic Solidarity, Church of Scientology National Affairs Office, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Indian American Muslim Council and American Humanist Association.
The International Religious Freedom Roundtable is a loosely organized group of non-governmental organizations that meet regularly for conversations about religious liberty overseas.
The coalition’s letter was sent to each member of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations – which is part of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The subcommittee was expected to vote on the bill, H.R. 1150, April 14.
Wolf, the bill’s namesake, was the leading congressional advocate for global religious freedom before he retired in January after 34 years as a representative from Virginia.
In their letter, the signers applaud the nomination and confirmation of David Saperstein as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. The Senate confirmed Saperstein, a longtime proponent of global religious liberty, in December. He was director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for more than three decades.
Saperstein, an original member of UCSIRF, strongly advocated for IRFA’s passage and served as the first chairman of USCIRF, the nine-member, bipartisan panel established by the law to advise Congress, the White House and State Department on global religious freedom conditions. He was on the commission from 1999-2001.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)