WASHINGTON—In an age when bipartisan political agreement is nearly non-existent, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to create a special envoy for religious liberty in Central America and the Middle East.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., authored the legislation that was approved 402-22. The nay votes came from 21 Republicans and one Democrat.
“Religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia are confronting deadly threats every day, ranging from discrimination and marginalization to outright violence,” Eshoo said. “This legislation responds to the urgent needs of those Christians and other religious minorities. … A special envoy will help develop policy options to ensure the protection and preservation of these ancient faith communities.”
The special envoy would advocate for religious minorities who often have no voice in politics. Wolf said the U.S. State Department is not doing enough to help them.
The Family Research Council reported that the State Department actually recruited former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., to lobby against a special envoy. This week the FRC sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to support the bill.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Jewish and Muslim groups have endorsed the legislation. Earlier this year Wolf sent a letter to more than 300 Protestant and Catholic leaders urging them to get behind the effort.
The same legislation passed the House on a 402-20 vote in 2011, but it was blocked in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“I urge my colleagues to join me in sending an undeniable message to persecuted people of faith the world over,” Wolf said, “and just as importantly, to the forces that oppress them, that America … will not be silent in the face of evil.”
During a congressional hearing earlier this year, Wolf implored Secretary of State John Kerry to appoint a special envoy, but Kerry—while saying he’s “very invested” in the issue of religious tolerance—said he wasn’t sure that a special envoy was the best way to do it.
Wolf argued the need is urgent.
“As we debate this legislation, Coptic Christians are leaving Egypt in droves,” he said. “Seven Baha’i leaders languish unjustly in an Iranian prison as does American citizen Saeed Abedini. … Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan are prohibited from voting and their graves are desecrated. … Syrian Christians fear they too will be caught in the crossfire like Iraq’s Christians, or worse, like Iraq’s Jew … only a single Jew remains in the country where once a vibrant Jewish community flourished.”