WASHINGTON — Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has criticized the U.S. government’s “anemic and at times outright baffling” response to the persecution of Christians in the Mideast, urging the appointment of an envoy to protect religious minorities.
“America has always been a friend to the oppressed, the persecuted, the forgotten. But, sadly, today, that allegiance is in question, as religious freedom and human-rights abuses around the globe increasingly go unaddressed and unanswered,” Wolf said June 17 during a discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
“Looking to the Middle East, there is often societal and communal violence and repression against religious communities, which specifically targets religious minorities,” he added during the discussion, which was hosted by the center’s Middle East Program.
Wolf, a co-chairman of the House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, spoke about the situation facing religious minorities in the Middle East.
The congressman noted that the civil war in Syria has killed some 93,000. Its consequences for Syrian Christians are “largely unknown and, unfortunately, rarely addressed by Western media.”
According to Wolf, the plight of Coptic Christians has been neglected by successive U.S. administrations. They now face marginalization under Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government.
He said the recently drafted Egyptian constitution is “highly problematic,” citing its provisions criminalizing blasphemy and allowing a stricter vision of sharia law.
The congressman lamented the decline in the Jewish population in countries such as Iraq and Egypt and the marginalization of the Baha’i community in Iran.
“It appears a similar fate may await the ancient Christian community in these same lands.
“While it remains to be seen whether the historic exodus of Christians from the region will prove to be as dramatic as what has already happened to the Jewish community, it is without question devastating, as it threatens to erase Christianity from its very roots.”
He pointed to the decline of Iraq’s Christian population from 1.4 million in 2003 to 500,000 today. Churches have been targeted for attacks, while individual Christians face threats of kidnapping and other violence.
The congressman said that the U.S. government’s General Accounting Office found that the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development could not prove that they spent funds Congress specially designated to help Iraq’s religious minorities.
“Perhaps this failure to follow a clear congressional directive was attributable in part to a refusal on the part of this administration — and, frankly, the previous administration — to acknowledge that minorities were being targeted, rather than merely victims of generalized violence in Iraq.”
The years-long vacancy of the United States’ ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom also gives the impression that religious freedom is not important, Wolf added.
He said that Congress should pass legislation to create an envoy dedicated to advocacy on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East and south-central Asia.
“This will send an important message to both our own foreign-policy establishment and to suffering communities in the Middle East and elsewhere that religious freedom is a priority — that America will be a voice for the voiceless,” he said.
In May, Secretary of State John Kerry released the State Department’s "International Religious Freedom Report" for 2012. He urged all countries to take action to safeguard the “fundamental freedom” of religious expression.
Critics, however, including Wolf, said the report should have deemed Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and other nations as “countries of particular concern,” a designation that has consequences for U.S. sanctions policy.