An Opening for Trump? Obama Signs International Religious Freedom Act

The bipartisan bill, designed to strengthen the U.S. response to religious persecution, could assist the new administration in refocusing America’s foreign-policy priorities.

Above and below: Days before Christmas, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., went to Iraq to witness firsthand the plight of Christians who escaped ISIS into the Erbil area of the Kurdistan region. He met with Christian families and leaders, as well as officials from the U.S.and other countries. Smith also visited a camp for 6,000 internally displaced people, managed and supported by the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil.
Above and below: Days before Christmas, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., went to Iraq to witness firsthand the plight of Christians who escaped ISIS into the Erbil area of the Kurdistan region. He met with Christian families and leaders, as well as officials from the U.S.and other countries. Smith also visited a camp for 6,000 internally displaced people, managed and supported by the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. (photo: photos courtesy of the office of Rep. Smith)

WASHINGTON — Advocates for international religious freedom cheered as President Barack Obama signed on Dec. 16 the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen the U.S. response to religious persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“This bill is very important, not least because our State Department has been so weak in the area of religious freedom,” said Nina Shea, a leading activist on religious-freedom issues at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

Shea singled out Washington’s slow response to the genocidal campaign against religious minorities waged by the Islamic State (ISIS) terror organization and predicted the new legislation would make the plight of Christians a strong priority in the new administration.

“The U.S. State Department has officially recognized this genocide, but has done next to nothing to help its victims. This bill will strengthen the government’s infrastructure so that it can be more effective.” 

Co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Global Human Rights Subcommittee, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the new bill is named for Frank Wolf, a recently retired congressman and committed Christian, who was a tireless defender of persecuted religious believers around the globe.

The legislation builds on provisions enacted in the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, sponsored by Wolf, which made promotion of religious freedom a larger part of stated U.S. foreign policy.

“Eighteen years ago, he had the foresight to make advancing the right to religious freedom a high U.S. foreign-policy priority,” Smith told Catholic News Agency, as the bill awaited Obama’s signature.

“It is largely because of his efforts that religious freedom is taken seriously as a foreign-policy issue.”


Prioritizing Religious Freedom

The 1998 bill created the office of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department to press other countries to honor freedom of religion and monitor human-rights abuses that impact religious freedom through an annual report that identifies “countries of particular concern.”

The new bill ensures that the ambassador-at-large — a post now filled by Rabbi David Saperstein — will report directly to the secretary of state. Further, it introduces a lower-tier “Special Watch List” for countries with poor records on respecting religious freedom and mandates the creation of a “comprehensive religious prisoners list.”

“The new act, first introduced by Congressman Chris Smith more than two years ago, significantly expands and strengthens U.S. efforts to protect religious freedom,” Lord David Alton, a member of the British House of Lords and a trustee of the U.K. branch of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, told the Register, in an email message from his office in Britain.

“Congressman Smith had to fight attempts to block the bill and made herculean efforts to get business managers and significant political allies, such as Speaker [Paul] Ryan, to get it passed into law.

“I truly hope that other nations will follow suit and that the incoming administration will prioritize Christian communities facing everything from genocide to crimes against humanity, persecution and discrimination,” Alton added.

The new effort to bolster the U.S. response to threats against religious freedom across the world is raising hopes that Washington will make the treatment of religious minorities a key issue in its bilateral relations with countries like Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria and India, U.S. allies with a poor record on religious freedom.

“We recognize that no piece of legislation will be a silver bullet and cure-all for [the challenges facing] religious freedom throughout the world,” Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico,chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.

“But we are hoping this bipartisan legislation will raise the profile of religious freedom, put the international community on notice, and make clear that the people of the United States will be watching.”


Major Church Issue

In May, Bishop Cantu wrote the U.S. Senate to signal the U.S. bishops' support for the proposed legislation. Since then, he has  met with Catholic leaders across the globe, and he noted that systemic violations of religious freedom have emerged as a major issue for the Church in the Middle East, as well as Africa and Asia.

“I just got back from Sri Lanka and India and attended a meeting with the federation of Asian bishops.

“Many of them brought up issues of religious freedom, particularly in India, where the government will point to the constitution and the equality of all citizens under the law, but in practice there is active discrimination against Christians,” he said.

A reset of Washington’s approach to international religious freedom could raise the stakes for New Delhi, which has sought to improve its relations with the United States.

Meanwhile, advocates for religious freedom in Iraq will likely use the law as leverage to help Christians in the war-torn country.

At present, U.S. military advisers are working closely with the Iraqi Army in a protracted battle to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, from the Islamic State. And Christians who were forced to abandon their homes, businesses and churches during the terror group’s brutal two-year occupation of the city and the surrounding villages will likely look to the U.S. to help them reclaim their property.

Bishop Cantu said he would be returning to Iraq in January, and he acknowledged that after the Islamic State group is defeated in Iraq, the adjudication of property disputes will emerge as key issue for Christians seeking to return to their homes and ancestral villages on the Nineveh Plain.

“Christians have been waiting in the wings, in Erbil, Lebanon and Jordan, until the country stabilizes and they can go back,” he said.

“This is an area where the State Department and Rabbi Saperstein can give some guidance and put pressure on the Iraqi government to do the right thing.”

In a telephone call from a camp for displaced Iraqi Christians in Erbil, where many survivors of ISIS’ campaign of genocide have found shelter, Congressman Smith applauded the passage of new legislation as a sign of hope for persecuted believers..

“So many wonderful families in the camp here have a sense of joy and peace during the Christmas season, but also sorrow over those who have been killed by genocide.”

Smith noted that he has sponsored another bill that would provide humanitarian assistance for Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria and offer priority status for those who wish to apply for asylum in the U.S. 


Hoping Trump Does More

Indeed, religious-freedom advocates hope the Trump administration will adopt a proactive approach to the needs of Iraqi Christians, who have lamented Obama's failure to  effectively respond to their plight. Thus far, private church groups, including the Knights of Columbus, have stepped up their efforts to address the unfolding crisis.

“Trump’s administration should issue instructions to all relevant U.S. agencies that the Christians of Nineveh, along with the Yazidis and other minorities, are on the brink of extinction due to ISIS’ violence and need immediate humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance,” said Shea.

“The administration should issue a demarche to the same effect to the U.N. and the government of Iraq. It is shameful that, over two and a half years, the U.S. has not given any aid, except for some tarps, to the majority of Iraqi Christian survivors of ISIS, those now displaced in Nineveh, according to the congressional testimony of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil.”

More broadly, Robert Destro, the founding director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at The Catholic University of America, believes that the State Department now has a fresh opportunity to rebalance Obama’s foreign-policy focus on climate change and the promotion of LGBT rights, placing greater stress on the critical role religious freedom and sectarian tensions and violence play in conflicts throughout the globe.

Likewise, Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Gerogetown University, hopes for a decisive course correction, with the National Security Council  conducting "a strategic review of how international religious freedom policy can enhance American national security."

But political specialists acknowledge that much will depend on specific actions adopted by Saperstein and by Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state and the CEO of ExxonMobil.

“It’s good that the bill calls for repercussions for countries that target religious groups,” Edward Clancy, a spokesman for Aid to the Church in Need in the U.S., told the Register, but its practical impact “will depend on whether the ambassador-at-large and the secretary of state make this issue a priority.”

Tillerson has already drawn scrutiny for his business ties to Russia and for his role, as a past president of the Boy Scouts of America, in adopting a new policy that allows homosexual scout troop leaders. But experts have little information about his position on international religious freedom, and early news reports suggest that Tillerson will likely face a bruising confirmation fight in the U.S. Senate.

“Rex Tillerson’s philosophy on international religious freedom, Middle East instability, foreign assistance and relations with countries like Russia and China must be closely examined before confirmation,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a strong advocate for religious freedom in Congress, in a statement following Tillerson’s nomination.


Pushing for a New Framework

Whatever Tillerson’s fate, Catholic activists and leaders plan to push the Trump White House to adopt a new framework that could inspire other countries to rethink their response to the suppression of a basic human right.

“Security, defense, aid and development policies, and the treatment of refugees should all be seen through the lens of religious persecution,” said Lord Alton.

“All the evidence shows that, in societies which promote religious freedom, the citizens prosper, while those that trample on religious freedom degenerate into conflict and grinding poverty.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.

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