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International religious freedom bill heads to Obama’s desk

Legislation elevates religious freedom issues in U.S. foreign policy

An Iraqi Christian woman cries after visiting a church near Mosul heavily damaged by Islamic State militants. Associated Press/Photo by Hussein Malla

International religious freedom bill heads to Obama’s desk

WASHINGTON—A long-awaited international religious freedom (IRF) bill is headed to President Barack Obama’s desk after the U.S. House gave final approval Tuesday afternoon.

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act includes a variety of reforms and updates to the landmark 1998 law that created the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The new bill is named after the law’s original author, former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who introduced the update legislation before retiring at the end of 2014.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who introduced the bipartisan bill with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., applauded its final passage.

“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,” he said in a statement.

The bill, three years in the making, became the top priority for the international religious freedom advocacy community after it was separated from USCIRF reauthorization last year.

Among other provisions, the legislation creates a “designated persons list” for egregious violators, a comprehensive religious prisoners list, and an “entity of particular concern” designation for non-state actors such as Boko Haram and Islamic State. It also mandates religious freedom training for all foreign service officers.

Perhaps most important to the advocacy community, the act requires the international religious freedom ambassador, currently David Saperstein, to report directly to the secretary of state and elevates the position within the federal government.

“What Chris [Smith] has done is give that office a lot of teeth and give the ambassador a lot more clout,” Wolf told me in a phone interview.

Wolf said some elements of the bill should have been included in the original law in 1998, but the Bill Clinton White House and the business community, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, opposed them. The result was compromise legislation that passed at the tail end of the session.

Similarly, lawmakers waited to approve the current legislation until the last possible moment. It passed the House last May, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn’t vote on it until last week, and the full Senate unanimously approved it in the early morning hours on Saturday.

“I’m glad we were able to get this bill done this year,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the primary Senate sponsor, who urged President Barack Obama to sign it promptly. “Every day, the headlines speak to the necessity of this legislation—a bombing targeting peaceful worshippers at a Cairo church over the weekend, another deadly self-immolation in Tibet last week, and a mob attack against a mosque belonging to Pakistan’s beleaguered Ahmadiyya community just yesterday.”

Since the Senate version included one amendment, it had to go back to the House for approval, which happened Tuesday afternoon during a pro forma session. Wolf credited Smith and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for getting the legislation to the finish line.

“Had the bill not passed, it would have been a defeat for human rights and religious freedom,” Wolf said. “It would have been a terrible message to the church in China, Nigeria, and Iran—to those being persecuted.”

J.C. Derrick J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.


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