Bright­en­ing the bea­con of light

A re­vamped re­li­gious free­dom act brings re­lief to per­se­cuted peo­ples

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Erin Rode­wald Erin Rode­wald, is a Los Angeles-based writer and con­trib­u­tor to the 21st Cen­tury Wil­ber­force Ini­tia­tive.

It is Christ­mas week, and mankind is re­minded of the prom­ise of the gospel: “The light shines in the dark­ness, and the dark­ness has not over­come it.” This year, how­ever, the dark­ness seems to have closed in. In Aleppo, the bat­tered streets run with blood. Geno­cide has left Iraq’s an­cient Chris­tian com­mu­nity all but ex­tinct. Nige­ria is frac­tured along re­li­gious lines. Chris­tians and other mi­nori­ties in China are tar­geted for the grue­some prac­tice of forced or­gan har­vest­ing. Op­pres­sion is great in all cor­ners of the world.

At the core of such evil fes­ters a deep­en­ing and deadly in­tol­er­ance of re­li­gious free­dom. A stag­ger­ing 75 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion lives in ar­eas of se­vere re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion. To claim the prom­ise of the gospel then, to pierce the dark­ness in th­ese mean times, we must start by turn­ing on the lights.

For­mer Repub­li­can Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Vir­ginia has been turn­ing on lights for decades — one man with the pas­sion and moral clar­ity to bring aware­ness and re­lief to the plight of per­se­cuted peo­ple in be­lea­guered places like Dar­fur, Iraq, Nige­ria and China. In 1998, he spon­sored leg­is­la­tion that el­e­vated ef­forts within U.S. foreign pol­icy to ad­vo­cate for the univer­sal rights to free­dom of re­li­gion or be­lief abroad.

This month, Congress amended that leg­is­la­tion, pass­ing H.R. 1150 — aptly ti­tled the Frank R. Wolf In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom Act — thereby ex­pand­ing the abil­ity of the United States to ad­vance re­li­gious free­dom through en­hanced diplo­macy, train­ing, coun­tert­er­ror­ism and foreign as­sis­tance ef­forts, and through stronger, more flex­i­ble po­lit­i­cal re­sponses to re­li­gious free­dom vi­o­la­tions and vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism world­wide.

“The free­dom to prac­tice a re­li­gion with­out per­se­cu­tion is a pre­cious right for ev­ery­one, of what­ever race, sex, or lo­ca­tion on earth,” said Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Repub­li­can, who co-spon­sored the bill with Rep. Anna Eshoo, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat. “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.”

This same bedrock prin­ci­ple has been foun­da­tional to the ca­reer and ser­vice of Frank Wolf. Un­der his lead­er­ship, the U.S. and in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity adopted a com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy to bring peace and sta­bil­ity to the Dar­fur re­gion of Su­dan in the early 2000s. Mr. Wolf, who re­tired from Congress in 2013, re­mains a vo­cal (and of­ten lone) critic of China’s de­plorable hu­man rights record. As a dis­tin­guished se­nior fel­low of the 21st Cen­tury Wil­ber­force Ini­tia­tive and Wil­son Chair in Re­li­gious Free­dom at Bay­lor Univer­sity, he con­tin­ues to ad­vo­cate for the rights and global pro­tec­tion of re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in ter­ror­istin­fested re­gions like north­ern Nige­ria and the Nin­eveh prov­ince of Iraq.

The now-for­ti­fied In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom Act (IRFA) that bares his name will strengthen U.S. hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts abroad. “The bill is named after for­mer Con­gress­man Frank Wolf, a tire­less cham­pion for the rights of the poor and the per­se­cuted glob­ally,” added Mr. Smith. “Eigh­teen years ago, he had the fore­sight to make ad­vanc­ing the right to re­li­gious free­dom a high U.S. foreign pol­icy pri­or­ity.”

Pres­i­dent Obama signed H.R. 1150 into law shortly after its ap­proval in Congress. Among the en­hanced tools in­tro­duced: cre­ation of a “des­ig­nated per­sons list” for in­di­vid­u­als who com­mit egre­gious vi­o­la­tions of re­li­gious free­dom; cre­ation of a re­li­gious pris­on­ers list of per­sons de­tained, im­pris­oned, tor­tured and sub­ject to forced re­nun­ci­a­tion of faith; strength­en­ing the role of the spe­cial ad­viser for re­li­gious free­dom at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil; in­ter­na­tional re­li­gious train­ing for all foreign ser­vice of­fi­cers; and el­e­va­tion of the po­si­tion of the am­bas­sador-at-large for in­ter­na­tional re­li­gious free­dom within the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

H.R. 1150 also cre­ates an “En­tity of Par­tic­u­lar Con­cern” des­ig­na­tion for nons­tate ac­tors. The orig­i­nal 1998 leg­is­la­tion pro­vided a mech­a­nism whereby na­tions could be mon­i­tored and held ac­count­able for bad be­hav­ior. This new clas­si­fi­ca­tion strength­ens and mod­ern­izes the IRFA by ex­tend­ing the State Depart­ment’s reach to ter­ror­ist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda, not other­wise af­fil­i­ated with a sin­gle state.

“Amer­ica was founded in part by peo­ple flee­ing re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion,” said Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Florida Repub­li­can, who in­tro­duced the com­pan­ion leg­is­la­tion to H.R. 1150 in the Se­nate with Repub­li­can Sens. Roy Blunt of Mis­souri and John Cornyn of Texas. “The U.S. has a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to be a cham­pion for op­pressed peo­ple around the world. When it comes to univer­sal hu­man rights that must be re­spected, few are more fun­da­men­tal to the hu­man spirit than the free­dom to live out your faith ac­cord­ing to your con­science.”

The Frank R. Wolf In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom Act was born of one man’s com­pas­sion and out­rage. It stands as a bea­con in a dark world be­cause of the hard work of ded­i­cated public ser­vants who have tire­lessly pushed for­ward de­spite grim events and es­ca­lat­ing hu­man cru­elty.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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