WASHINGTON—Even in hyper-partisan Washington, D.C., an amendment defending persecuted religious minorities could draw support from both sides of the political aisle.
At least, that's what Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul thought.
But it turns out the bipartisanship was against Paul, a Republican, this week when he proposed an amendment prohibiting financial assistance to foreign governments that violate religious freedom. The amendment would have barred foreign aid for countries that sentence individuals to death or life imprisonment based on anti-blasphemy laws. It failed on a 16-2 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Every Democrat and every Republican, basically, supported foreign aid without restrictions or conditions,” Paul told me. “They say the foreign aid will convince these people to behave better, [but] we’ve been giving the foreign aid for decade after decade and these countries still are persecuting Christians.”
Paul cited a Tuesday subcommittee hearing, convened by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that examined violence and discrimination against women around the globe. He said the panel heard many horrifying stories. “They complain, they have these big showy hearings, and they say ‘this is wrong,’ but … no one is willing to do anything,” Paul said.
Paul attached his amendment to the Global Human Rights Accountability Act, a bipartisan bill that would impose sanctions on foreign individuals who violate human rights. This isn’t the first time Paul has proposed such a measure, but he said he was surprised only Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., voted for the amendment.
“It’s all empty air if you’re just going to complain about it and not do anything about it,” Paul said. “People say American foreign aid is supposed to project American power, but you’re not projecting anything but weakness if you’re giving it to people who simply abuse their population.”
Paul’s proposal also would have applied to countries that hand down harsh sentences for inter-faith marriage—exemplified in Meriam Ibrahim’s ongoing legal battle in Sudan. The United States does not send aid directly to the Sudanese government, but billions have flowed into the country through non-governmental organizations. Paul said although his amendment wouldn’t affect all countries, it would apply to many of the roughly 25, including Pakistan, that attach severe penalties to anti-blasphemy and anti-apostasy laws.
Katharine Gorka, president of the Council on Global Security, which advocates for persecuted religious minorities, said Paul’s perspective is “absolutely right,” but many lawmakers do not make religious freedom a priority. “Religious persecution is not an issue for policymakers right now,” she told me. “They have forgotten how fundamental religious freedom is to all other freedoms.”
I asked Paul, who many speculate may run for president in 2016, if religious freedom is the kind of issue that would make him consider a White House run. “Maybe,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t made a decision and won’t until next year, but these are positions that I think distinguish me from some of the Republicans and some Democrats.”
Speaking at the Coptic Solidarity conference on Thursday, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said by 2016 Americans should demand that all candidates—for president, House, and Senate—have a position on international religious freedom.
“Just ask general America: ‘Do you think we should send money to a country that could put you to death for a religious belief or religious expression?’” Paul said. “I don’t think you’ll find one American in a hundred who is for this.”