A Questionable Religious Freedom Envoy

October 3, 2013

Last month, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed H.R. 301 with bipartisan support. The bill calls for the establishment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. The bill has yet to be considered by the Senate, where a similar measure died in 2011.

On its face, the idea of a U.S. official assigned to monitor religious rights in a volatile region sounds like a good idea. Indeed, in recent weeks, we’ve seen attacks on Christians and churches in Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria and elsewhere. So, the timing of the effort seems right. Nonetheless, some nagging concerns have been raised about the bill.

In the previous go-round, the State Department opposed the bill because, it said, the plan “infringes on the secretary’s flexibility to make appropriate staffing.” Simply put, foreign policy is the domain of the executive, not Congress. So the State Department was concerned that Congress might be intruding upon diplomatic turf. Besides, there already is an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the State Department, whose job description is similar to the proposed envoy. The incumbent, Suzan D. Johnson Cook, was confirmed by the Senate in 2011. If so, why the need for H.R. 301?

The main lobbying force behind the bill is Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which sees its support for Israel as an outgrowth of the Christian mission. CUFI has a stellar record of active and consistent support for the State of Israel and is counted among Israel’s most reliable and durable friends. But we wonder what drives CUFI to support H.R. 301 and its executive director, David Brog, to argue for the legislation as a matter of Christian rights, rather than religious minority rights, being threatened. According to Berg, H.R. 301 “will help end the silence and increase attention throughout America and the world about the plight of Christians and build demand for greater action.”

CUFI’s focus on the plight of Christians, rather than the broader class of religious minorities, and its highlighting of problems in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other Islamist-controlled locations, have led some to see the hint of an agenda that is not only pro-Christian and pro-religious rights, but also anti-Muslim. Certainly the rights of religious minorities in China are a concern, as is Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq. And should the Alawite Muslim minority in Syria lose power, no doubt they will need protection as well.

Protecting religious minorities is a position we support. That means the protection of all religious minorities, even Muslims. If there is to be U.S. monitoring of minority rights, it needs to be across the board.

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