Brightening the beacon of light
A revamped religious freedom act brings relief to persecuted peoples
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.