WASHINGTON, D.C. (BP) – The United States government has new means to help protect Christians and other religious minorities around the world from persecution. President Obama signed into law Dec. 16 the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The president's enactment of the legislation came only three days after Congress completed its approval of the bill without any opposition in either the Senate or House of Representatives. See related report.
The new law -- supported by a diverse coalition of non-government organizations -- amends the original IRFA passed in 1998 by updating some of the measure's provisions in an effort to make the federal government's promotion of global religious freedom more effective. Southern Baptists were among those who applauded enactment of the legislation. "The bipartisan nature of this passage shows us that religious freedom does not have to be a partisan issue but is rooted in our deepest commitments as Americans, and I hope that persecuted religious minorities around the globe will see that they have not been forgotten," said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in a written statement.
"While the passage of this act by no means solves the religious freedom crisis around the world, it is a step in the right direction," Moore said. Sen. James Lankford, R.-Okla., a member of a Southern Baptist church in Oklahoma City, expressed his appreciation for the president's action. "Religious freedom is more than an American right; it is a human right," Lankford said in a written release. "As a world leader for freedom and the protection of basic human rights, the United States should take every opportunity to advocate for people to think, believe, and act according to their religious belief, whether they belong to a minority or majority religion."
The new version of IRFA includes the following provisions intended to strengthen the U.S. promotion of freedom for all religious adherents:
-- It requires the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to be able to report directly to the secretary of State;
-- It institutes an "entities of particular concern" category -- a companion to the "countries of particular concern" classification used for nearly 20 years by the State Department -- for non-government actors, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram.
-- It establishes a "designated persons list" for individuals who violate religious freedom and authorizes the president to issue sanctions against those who participate in persecution.
The new law -- signed by Obama without comment with nearly 50 other bills the same day -- also creates a list of overseas religious prisoners, mandates religious liberty training for all Foreign Service officers and calls for a minimum number of full-time staff members in the State Department's international religious freedom office. The original IRFA established a religious freedom office in the State Department to be headed by an ambassador-at-large. It also created an independent watchdog panel, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Wolf, the since-retired congressman from Virginia who long championed global religious liberty, sponsored IRFA 18 years ago.
In its annual report in May, USCIRF said global religious liberty continued to decline in the previous year. The commission cited the rampant imprisonment of prisoners of conscience, the startling increase in refugees and the ongoing bigotry toward Jews and Muslims in Europe as examples of attacks on religious adherents. This year, violent religious persecution has been reported in such countries as Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria. The State Department named its "countries of particular concern" (CPCs) in April, adding Tajikistan to a list that already consisted of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The CPC designation is reserved for governments that commit or tolerate "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom."
USCIRF -- a bipartisan, nine-member panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders -- urged the State Department a month later to add the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam to the CPC list. The Southern Baptist Convention has adopted numerous resolutions calling for religious freedom overseas, and the ERLC has backed IRFA throughout the legislation's history. The SBC approved its latest resolution on international religious freedom in 2015, saying it encourages U.S. government officials "to elevate religious liberty concerns to the highest priority in foreign policy, invoking sanctions against those nations which advocate or tolerate persecution of those with differing religious beliefs."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.