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Reps. Smith, Eshoo Bill to Protect Religious Freedoms Advances

Contact: Smith- Jeff Sagnip, 202-225-3765; Eshoo- Charles Stewart, 202-225-8104

WASHINGTON, April 16, 2015 /Standard Newswire/ -- The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2015 (HR 1150) was passed Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and International Organizations today.  The bipartisan bill, authored by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) with the lead co-sponsorship of Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA), would give the Administration and the State Department new tools, resources and training to help counter extremism and the growing persecution of religious minorities globally. 

"The need to advance religious freedom globally is more important now than ever before," said Smith, (NJ-04) Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights.  "From Beijing to Burma, Nigeria to Syria, and to Pakistan and beyond, the need to protect religious minorities, mitigate sectarian violence, end government restrictions and counter radicalism and extremism are critical priorities for US foreign policy.  We see daily headlines of beheadings, kidnapping, mob attacks and arrests carried out by ISIS, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, or other groups.  Ugly incidents of anti-Semitism are also increasing globally, even in supposedly tolerant Europe. According to the Pew Research Foundation, governmental restrictions on the freedom of religion are at a seven year high. A robust religious freedom diplomacy is necessary to advance our nation's interest in the stability, security, and economic development of countries we engage with around the globe."  Click here to read Chairman Smith's opening statement.

"Religious persecution around the world is at a seven-year high, taking the lives of countless innocent people and shattering human rights," said Eshoo, a Co-Chair and Founding Member of the Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East. "The bipartisan Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act unanimously passed by the House Subcommittee for Global Human Rights is a constructive response to the human suffering of so many. The legislation strengthens U.S. diplomatic initiatives for religious freedom, including the training of diplomats in counter extremism to enhance their roles in U.S. response, and reauthorizes the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. More robust efforts to advance religious freedom diplomatically will advance U.S. values around the world and help protect vulnerable religious minorities."

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act will upgrade the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to better address a growing religious persecution globally and help the Administration and the State Department to better respond to violent extremism globally.

The bill will improve U.S. religious freedom diplomacy efforts globally; better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism; address anti-Semitism and religious persecution, and mitigate sectarian conflict.  The bill:

  • Gives the Administration and the State Department new political tools and enhancing the position of the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom.
  • Creates a "tier system" for International Religious Freedom reports on countries of particular concern and a special watch list—similar to the tier system used in the Trafficking in Persons Report.
  • Requires annual designations and actions on countries with severe religious freedom abuses.
  • Allows the President to designate "violent non-state actors" as severe violators of international religious freedom and giving him the authority to sanction individuals responsible for committing those violations. 
  • Expands diplomatic training, counter-terrorism coordination, and foreign assistance efforts to advance religious freedom. 
  • Re-authorizes the independent and ecumenical agency the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).  

The bill was supported publically by an ecumenical and bipartisan group of religious organizations and representatives of ethnic minority groups and NGOs. 

Congress first passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998.  Smith held hearings on that bill.

"Our bill is named after former Congressman Frank Wolf, a tireless champion for the rights of the poor and the persecuted globally. It is largely because of his efforts that religious freedom is taken seriously as a foreign policy issue," said Smith.  "But I also want to thank  Rep. Eshoo for her partnership on this legislation and her advocacy on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East and the cause of all those oppressed for the beliefs they hold.  Protecting religious liberty globally is too important an issue for Congress not to act.  We will both work to move this bill to passage."

The bill will next go for consideration to the full committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Chairman Smith has held more than a dozen hearings on religious freedom, including a May 2014 hearing where Dr. Robert George, a professor at Princeton University and chairman of the bipartisan USCIRF testified at a hearing entitled "Protecting Religious Freedom: U.S. Efforts to Hold Accountable Countries of Particular Concern."