As the Biden administration pleads with Hamas to release more than 220 hostages, including 10 Americans, and Israel readies for a ground invasion of Gaza, a bipartisan group of more than a dozen current and former members of Congress spent Monday underscoring the continued need to promote religious freedom at home and abroad as a pathway to peace amid global outrage and war.
“This mission is especially personal for me as an American Jew,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., told a group of U.S. officials and faith-based freedom advocates gathered in a Senate meeting room. “My ancestors suffered from pogroms in Eastern Europe, and right now it cuts deep, as we see the horrific violence inflicted by Hamas to targeted civilians.”
The congresswoman delivered her remarks at a Capitol Hill event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Congress passed the law to make pluralism and faith-based liberty a higher priority in U.S. foreign policy and to strengthen the country’s advocacy for individuals persecuted overseas because of their religion or belief.
The landmark legislation created a new State Department ambassador post, as well as the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, a taxpayer-funded independent body to monitor religious freedom violations in countries around the world. The commission issues reports and recommendations to the State Department, backed by the threat of sanctions, to influence foreign policy and shine a light on perpetrators’ oppression.
Three of the original sponsors of the legislation delivered remarks at Monday’s event.
Former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a leading human rights champion for more than three decades, shared his struggles in pushing the measure through Congress in the face of strong business opposition. At the time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and high-tech companies were trying to expand trade relations in China and other countries with abysmal human rights records.
Even then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke out against the bill, arguing that it would establish a new and unnecessary government bureaucracy and deprive the State Department of flexibility in determining America’s foreign policy interests, Wolf recalled.
“I am very grateful that President [Bill] Clinton signed it in spite of the opposition by some in the administration,” Wolf, who now serves as a USCIRF commissioner, told the audience gathered in a Russell Senate Office Building meeting room for the event.
At the time, Sudan was in the midst of a drawn-out civil war after Col. Omar Bashir led a bloodless military coup. Bashir’s government forces, influenced by the National Islamic Front, a political party that dominated the country’s government, declared the country an Islamic republic and fought rebel forces, carrying out indiscriminate attacks against civilians and perpetrating widespread human rights abuses and genocide in Darfur, a region in western Sudan.
Although Islam was the state religion, only 60% of the population was Muslim and living in the north, while most southerners were Christians or practiced traditional African religions. Overall, the regime killed an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people, and 550,000 refugees fled to neighboring countries.
The atrocities in Sudan generated bipartisan outrage and support for the International Religious Freedom Act. Then-Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Don Nickles, R-Okla., joined forces to push the legislation through the Senate.
“From the beginning, [the United States] was a faith-based country,” Lieberman told the Senate gathering via a recorded statement. “It’s right there in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence, particularly in the catalytic sentence about the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are endowed by our Creator.”
“Obviously, God didn’t just give those rights to Americans, but to every person on Earth, and that’s why it’s so critically important that human rights generally, but also religious freedom, specifically, is at the center of our relations with the rest of the world,” Lieberman added.
Before the measure, Nickles recalled, all the members of Congress who cared about religious persecution would bring up human rights abuses on their own in individual meetings with Chinese, Russian, and African dignitaries. Nickles also recalled a visit he made to Pakistan, where the recent bombing of a Christian church had killed more than 100 worshippers.
“It was all a little haphazard, so we said, ‘What can we do? What would be better?’ And Frank Wolf said, ‘Let’s have a commission that stays on top of exposing religious intolerance, religious discrimination,’” Nickles recalled.
Over the past quarter-century, USCIRF’s reports and influence have helped raise awareness of religious persecution in many countries and spurred the creation of similar envoys and ambassadors devoted to the issue in other countries and the European Union.
Leading advocates argue that the law has helped change repressive policies in several countries around the world and assisted in securing the freedom of several prisoners of conscience. Yet, some of the most repressive nations—China, Burma and Iran—have continued or even ratcheted up their repression despite USCIRF repeatedly placing the countries on its list of worst offenders.
Several recent studies by the Pew Research Center have documented a rise in religious persecution worldwide. Against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, Wolf and other advocates argue that championing religious pluralism and tolerance is more important now than ever.
Four days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed at least 1,400 Israeli civilians, all eight USCIRF commissioners representing different faiths—including Christians, Jews, and Muslims—issued a statement condemning the brutal terrorist attack.
“We reiterated that invoking any religion to justify taking innocent lives has no place in any society,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, USCIRF’s chairman, said at the Monday event.
Wolf also stressed that it’s essential that support for religious freedom remains bipartisan and suggested that more U.S. faith leaders need to rally around the cause as religious and ethnic tensions continue to flare in the Middle East and many other regions.
Frederick Davie is a USCIRF commissioner who also serves as a senior strategic adviser to the president at Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical Christian seminary in Manhattan. Davie used the anniversary event to call for a national prayer service amid the Israel-Hamas war as a way to acknowledge the “horror and depravity that has taken place in the region” and to call for “compassion for human life” as well as for “a just and peaceful resolution” to the conflict.
Originally published by RealClearPolitics.com
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