The U.S. Special Envoy and Religious Freedom

April 29, 2013

A Beacon of Hope for Besieged Communities?

March 2, 2013 marked the two-year anniversary of the assassination of Shabbaz Bhatti, then Pakistan's only Christian cabinet member. He was brutally gunned down outside of his mother's home for daring to challenge his nation's blasphemy laws.

A special envoy could stand up for the Shabbaz Bhattis of the world, and the countless others whose names we do not know, but who are seeking justice, equality and basic religious freedom in their own countries.

The last two years have been witness to remarkable waves of change in the Middle East, but it would be naïve to categorize all of this change as positive. What has too often been forgotten as major policy decisions have been made in the U.S. and abroad is the worsening plight of religious minorities in the Middle East and south central Asia.

Religious minorities in countries like Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan are confronting serious threats every day, ranging from discrimination and marginalization to outright violence.

Consider the following examples:

  • An Iranian Baha'i is denied enrollment in school
  • A Coptic church is torched in Egypt
  • An Ahmadi grave is desecrated in Pakistan
  • A Chaldo-Assyrian Christian family is driven from its ancestral homeland in Iraq

The list goes on.

Acting with the belief that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless and advocate for basic human rights and religious freedom wherever they are under assault, we introduced bipartisan legislation in January 2011 to appoint a special envoy within the State Department whose responsibility would be to work on behalf of minorities in the Middle East and south central Asia.

The bill garnered wide bipartisan support, passing the House on July 29, 2011 by a vote of 402-20. Many religious freedom organizations and affected diaspora communities in the U.S. also lent their support to the initiative, but companion Senate legislation introduced by Senators Roy Blunt and Carl Levin languished.

At the time we introduced the legislation, the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom had been vacant for two years. No one was "at the helm" to guide the State Department on critical religious freedom issues. Ultimately, the post was filled, but in the months that followed, the "Arab Spring" unleashed an unforeseeable chain of events in the Middle East that have had devastating implications for the region's religious minorities, many of whom have inhabited these lands for centuries.

The consequences of the Arab Spring for religious minorities have confirmed that the need for a special envoy is as great as it's ever been. That is why we have reintroduced our special envoy legislation (H.R. 301) in the new Congress and are committed to pressing for Congressional action in both chambers this year. Already, there are forty bipartisan cosponsors.

There is a precedent for appointing special envoys in the State Department to manage complex issues of foreign policy. Consider former Sudan special envoy John Danforth whose clear focus on the peace process, high-level access to the White House and undivided attention to his mission proved highly effective.

Ultimately, religious pluralism is central to any vibrant democracy, and religious minorities have historically been a moderating influence in their communities. A special envoy could help develop policy options to ensure the protection and preservation of these ancient faith communities while also serving as a high-level advocate within our own government and with foreign governments.

Will a special envoy single-handedly solve the problem? No. But will it help? Will it be a beacon of hope for besieged communities? Will it elevate the issue within the State Department at a time when real focus is desperately needed? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.

This op-ed appeared on the Venn Institute blog on April 29, 2013.