The U.S. House of Representatives passed and sent to the President’s desk the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150). The bipartisan bill was authored by U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and co-sponsored by Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA).
“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,” said Rep. Smith. “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 freedom to practice a religion without persecution is a precious right for everyone, of whatever race, sex, or location on earth,” said Smith. “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,” he added.
The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act will expand the International Religious Freedom Act sponsored by former Rep. Frank Wolf in 1998 to better address escalating religious persecution globally and help the Administration and the State Department to more effectively respond to violent extremism worldwide.
“As the daughter of Christians who fled persecution in the Middle East,” Rep. Eshoo said, “the importance of religious freedom is interwoven in the history of my family as it is in the history of the United States. The freedom of religion embodied in the First Amendment is one of the most important and foundational rights in our country and it is what makes our nation a shining beacon of freedom and tolerance for the entire world.
“It is also in the U.S. national security interest that the value of freedom of religion be extended to all citizens of the world. Through the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, the U.S. government will receive new resources to help improve our religious freedom diplomacy efforts globally.
“I’m proud to honor my former colleague Congressman Frank Wolf with our legislation. Through his tireless efforts, religious freedom is now being taken seriously as a foreign policy issue.”
Rep. Eshoo, together with former Congressman Frank Wolf, founded the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus in 2008.
The bill will improve U.S. religious freedom diplomacy efforts globally; better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism; address anti-Semitism and religious persecution; and mitigate sectarian conflict. The bill:
- Creates a “Designated Persons List” for individuals who commit egregious violations of religious freedom
- Creates a comprehensive religious prisoners list—persons who are detained, imprisoned, tortured and subject to forced renunciation of faith.
- Integrates religious freedom into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy
- Strengthens the Special Advisor for religious freedom at the National Security Council
- Requires international religious freedom training for all Foreign Service Officers
- Requires that the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom report directly to the Secretary of State
- Elevates the position of the ambassador within the federal government
- Creates an “Entity of Particular Concern” designation for non-state actors like terrorist groups
- Requires more frequent presidential actions to counter severe religious freedom violations globally
- Creates a “Special Watch List”—two tier system at State (CPC countries/Special Watch List)
- Sets congressional expectations for staffing of the IRF office and expansion of Religious Freedom Program grants
The bill is supported publicly by an ecumenical and bipartisan group of religious organizations and representatives of ethnic minority groups and NGOs.
“The bill is named after former Congressman Frank Wolf, a tireless champion for the rights of the poor and the persecuted globally,” said Smith. “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. I had the distinct honor and pleasure of working with him for over thirty years. This bill is a fitting tribute to his work and service to our great nation.”
Congress first passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. Since then Smith has held more than 17 hearings on religious freedom, including the landmark hearing held last year entitled “The Global Crisis of Religious Freedom.”