WASHINGTON — Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., has called on President Barack Obama to follow up on his meeting with Pope Francis by backing the creation of a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and south-central Asia.
“I urge you to put your words into action, lest inaction be perceived as indifference,” Wolf wrote in a March 27 letter to Obama.
“The scope of religious persecution around the world, but especially in the Middle East, is gravely concerning and ought to alarm any person of conscience.”
While the congressman said he did not think a special envoy would on its own solve the “vast” problem of persecution, “it would provide much-needed hope and comfort to communities desperate to know that the United States stands with them.”
Wolf cited the president’s own words about his meeting with Pope Francis; Obama had said the meeting included the topic of “the potential persecution of Christians.”
“I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world,” Obama said in his public account of the meeting.
Wolf agreed that the protection of religious minorities should be central in U.S. policy, yet adding that “this has sadly not rung true in recent years.”
He said persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East is “not simply potential.”
Rather, they face “a very real threat” of discrimination, violence and sometimes death every day.
The congressman, who authored a March 2013 report on religious persecution, cited the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Copts from Egypt and Christians from Iraq.
In Iraq, “churches have been targeted, believers kidnapped for ransom and families threatened with violence if they stay,” wrote Wolf.
Syrian Christians fear a similar fate, he added, noting the imposition of dhimmi status and the jizya imposed on Christians in Ar Raqqah.
Wolf also noted the imprisonment of seven Baha’i adherents in Iran and violence against the minority Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, and he warned that “anti-Semitism throughout the region is rampant.”
Wolf noted that his bill to create a special envoy for religious minorities in the region “overwhelmingly passed” in the House of Representatives but failed to win enough support in the Senate.
The bill had the support of the U.S. bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention’s religious-liberty commission and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.
However, the Obama administration’s State Department “has opposed Senate passage of this bill,” he wrote.
He said legislation is not necessary for the creation of a special envoy, noting Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that he intended to create a special representative to the Arctic region.
“Your administration could act today, consistent with the sentiments you expressed following your meeting with the Pope,” Wolf told Obama in his letter.
He said the president could consult with affected communities, including their members in the U.S., about an appropriate person for the “monumental task.”
Obama has been criticized on other global religious-freedom issues, such as his handling of the position of U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
That position has been vacant since the resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook in October 2013.
Before she was sworn into office in June 2011, the position had been vacant for more than two years.