Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2016 / 04:03 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After almost 20 years, a landmark religious freedom bill may finally be getting a big upgrade. And it wouldn’t come too soon, said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-sponsor of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.
“From China and Vietnam to Syria and Nigeria, we are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious believers and for U.S. national security,” he said. “Ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria are on the verge of extinction, and other religious minorities in the Middle East face a constant assault from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed the House on Tuesday afternoon and will be heading to the president’s desk to be signed. It is bipartisan, with Rep. Smith, chair of the House Global Human Rights subcommittee, and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) as the co-sponsors. The legislation upgrades the original 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which helped make promotion of religious freedom a larger part of stated U.S. foreign policy. Former Congressman Frank Wolf — “a tireless champion for the rights of the poor and the persecuted globally,” Rep. Smith called him — sponsored that bill, and is now honored in the new one.
“18 years ago, he had the foresight to make advancing the right to religious freedom a high U.S. foreign policy priority. It is largely because of his efforts that religious freedom is taken seriously as a foreign policy issue,” Rep. Smith said. The original law created the office of Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department to push other countries to honor freedom of religion, and monitor human rights abuses that are related to religious freedom. The new bill ensures that the ambassador reports directly to the Secretary of State.
The State Department since then has also published an annual report on the state of religious freedom by country. It deems certain countries “countries of particular concern,” (CPC) where the worst abuses of religious freedom are perpetrated by the government or without the government stopping them. The new bill adds to this CPC list, creating a lower-tier “Special Watch List” for countries with poor records on respecting religious freedom.
Also, given that recent reports have emphasized the rise of “non-state actors” like terrorist groups, they get a special designation “Entity of Particular Concern.” The new bill also mandates creation of a “comprehensive religious prisoners list.”
Globally, the state of religious freedom is dire and deserves special attention by the U.S., Rep. Smith insisted. “The freedom to practice a religion without persecution is a precious right for everyone, of whatever race, sex, or location on earth,” he said. “This human right is enshrined in our own founding documents, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has been a bedrock principle of open and democratic societies for centuries.”