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Congress Passes Bill for Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in Mideast

Frank Wolf

Frank Wolf

Mark Stricherz - published on 07/31/14 - updated on 06/08/17

President Obama has had bill almost a week but no word yet on whether he will sign.

WASHINGTON — Congress approves legislation to create a special envoy to aid persecuted Christians that languishes on the President’s desk. An influential lawmaker denounces all of Washington for its timidity and inaction in the face of genocide. And last-minute meetings at the Capitol are called without the presence of administration officials.

A mood of exasperation and unease has taken over religious-freedom advocates and lawmakers who want the federal government to help persecuted Christians in Iraq. They fear their response won’t be sufficient to push Washington to fight nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Iraq.

"This place doesn’t want to do anything. The administration doesn’t want to do anything," Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, said in an interview last week. "You guys in the press have been wimps. You never ask Obama at the press conferences."

Wolf was a key co-sponsor of legislation that would create a special envoy for religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia. Both the House of Representatives and Senate approved S. 653 with unanimous support last week. But President Obama had not signed the bill, passed on July 25, into law as of Tuesday, and administration spokesmen did not return a phone call and two emails for comment.

On Thursday morning, 10 House members and five religious-freedom advocates met for one hour in the office of Speaker John Boehner, according to Nina Shea, director of the center for religious freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. The group included at least one Democrat, Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, but no Obama administration officials. They met to discuss the persecution of Christians in the Nineveh plain in Iraq, a region that has moved to the forefront of advocates’ concern.

Outside observers too cast a down note on the federal government’s response  to persecuted Christians in Iraqi  cities  such as Mosul, which has been emptied of Christians after jihadists conquered the city this summer.  "No law can solve problems in Mosul. But U.S. foreign policy can do much more than it is currently doing, which is very little," Thomas F. Farr, a visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, wrote in an email exchange.

Last week, multiple news outlets reported that Christians, many Catholic, were forced at the point of death  to leave Mosul. As many as 60,000 Christians had been living in the Iraqi city as recently as a decade ago. Now they have fled  to surrounding communities after the Islamic State took over the city from government forces.

Shea, who has traveled the region extensively, sketched a grim picture of Christians’ lives. "They are penniless. They are homeless. They have no future.These are professionals and tradesmen. They have skills. They’re not  going to be content in the country as refugees. Basically, they are sitting in unfurnished apartments with nothing to do," Shea said in an interview.

In March 2013, Sen. Roy Blunt, a  Missouri Republican, sponsored legislation to create a new diplomatic post would address the predicament of religious minorities such as those in Mosul. Shea said a special envoy could help religious minorities in immeasurable ways.

"I’m a big supporter of a special envoy. This person would have the ear of the president. He or she will feed into policy making.  And (the job) would allow the person to make decisions based on  what’s happening on the ground," Shea said.

Now she hopes Washington and the administration takes additional steps,  such as humanitarian assistance to persecuted Christians.

So do the Catholic bishops. Adding their voices to a growing chorus of support for Iraqi Christians–particularly in France and Great Britain–the bishops have urged the U.S. government to assist Iraqi Christian victims of persecution.

In a July 25 letter to U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Bishop Richard E. Pates, the U.S. bishops’ chairman of International Justice and Peace, stressed the need for humanitarian aid directly provided to minority communities.

Mark Stricherz
is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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