A significant upgrade to a landmark religious freedom law passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday afternoon.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the bill’s author, outlined what is at stake abroad for religious freedom in a statement: “The world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis of international religious freedom, a crisis that continues to create millions of victims; a crisis that undermines liberty, prosperity and peace; a crisis that poses a direct challenge to the US interests in the Middle East, Russia, China and sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere.”
The 2015 Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed the House May 16 by unanimous voice vote. It had strong bipartisan support — 116 co-sponsors, including 20 Democrats. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) was the lead co-sponsor.
The bill makes the first big upgrades to the original International Religious Freedom Act passed in 1998, a landmark piece of religious freedom legislation. The 1998 act had created the International Religious Freedom office in the U.S. State Department and also the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan commission that advises the State Department.
Tools for promoting religious freedom, especially in countries that actively persecute religious minorities, were thereby officially inserted into U.S. foreign policy. However, both the willingness of administrations to use these diplomatic tools and the priority they give to promoting religious freedom abroad remain in question.
The new bill adds to the role of religious freedom in diplomacy: the Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom can report directly to the Secretary of State, and religious freedom training for U.S. diplomats is expanded.
The original law had also established the “countries of particular concern” list, which the State Department can use to name the countries where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place, and gives the U.S. legal authority to take certain actions such as economic sanctions against such countries.
The new bill would add to the CPC list, creating a “tier system” to separate the violators that are nevertheless working with the U.S. to improve religious freedom protections from the violators that are not complying with the U.S.
It also expands executive power to name “non-state actors” as some of the worst violators of religious freedom, like the terror groups Boko Haram and Islamic State, who have been accused by the U.S. of committing genocide against whole religious groups.
The bill also creates a list of the worst individual violators of religious freedom, persons who are sanctioned for their abuses.
“Nearly 20 years ago, led by US Congressman Frank R. Wolf, the Congress had the foresight to make advancing the right to religious freedom a high U.S. foreign policy priority. Today religious freedom is still under attack and we must upgrade our programs and methods to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” Rep. Smith stated.