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    Frank Wolf's Campaign: Addressing the persecution ofreligious minorities in the Middle East.
    By: Thomas O'Ban

    February 9, 2011

    On October 31, Islamist extremists took hostage thecongregation of Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad andslaughtered 58 men, women and children, wounding 78 others. Most of the slainwere worshipers, and two were priests. The tragedy generated a weak responsefrom the Obama administration: Robert Gibbs called it a “senseless act ofhostage taking and violence by terrorists linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.”

    A much stronger response, however, came from RepresentativesAnna Eshoo (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA), who wrote a letter to Secretary ofState Hillary Clinton less than a week after the tragedy. The letter, signed bynine members of Congress, explained that the attack needed to be understoodapart from the broader context of extremist violence in Iraq.

    We are concerned that the administration has too oftenimplied, as the previous administration did, that the attacks against Iraq’s religiousminorities are only part of a broader pattern of “generalized violence” thatplagues Iraq…it is critical that the U.S. government recognize that thereligious minority groups have been subject to a specific pattern of violentdiscrimination, and as such, require a cohesive strategy for their protectionand preservation.

    The pattern has continued since October and Frank Wolf, whoco-chairs both the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the ReligiousMinorities in the Middle East Caucus, introduced the other week the beginningsof a solution: Bipartisan legislation calling for “the creation of a specialenvoy at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near Eastand South Central Asia.”

     “This has not been anissue this administration has spoken out on,” Wolf said in an interview withme. “A special envoy transcends bureaus, and would force the issue within ourown government and others. We need to develop a comprehensive policy … whichrecognizes that these indigenous communities are not simply the victims ofgeneralized violence, but are facing targeted violence which is forcing them toflee the lands they’ve inhabited for centuries.”

    Creation of a special envoy for this task would be a way toraise international awareness of the systematic persecution of religiousminorities—persecution currently taking place in several Middle Eastern states.It would also show that the administration is serious about addressing theissue.

    “Personnel is policy,” said Wolf.

    Wolf has spent the months since the October 31 attackcompiling research on this persecution, focusing on Iraq and Egypt, andappealing to both the State Department and some of America’s influentialChristian leaders to take an active role in raising awareness of the systematicatrocities occurring in the region. “Without awareness,” he told me,“government doesn’t act.”

    To provide background for the legislation, Wolf and theHuman Rights Commission called a congressional hearing on January 20, whichfeatured testimony from Dina Guirguis, an Egyptian Copt, and Sister Rita, anIraqi Catholic. Both deplored the current situation for religious minorities intheir home countries. Sister Rita testified: “The year 2010 was the mostviolent for Christians [in Iraq] since the war began.”

    Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on InternationalReligious Freedom, also testified at the hearing, and chronicled attack afterattack that has been levied on Christian minorities in Iraq and Egypt. Adrive-by shooting on the eve of the Coptic Christmas in 2009 killed sixChristians and a Muslim guard. The New Year’s Day bombing in Alexandria—atargeted attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christian population—was “the worst sectarianattack targeting Christians in a decade.”

    For many years, Egypt’s only response to the murder, andeven to massacres, of Christians has been to conduct ‘reconciliation’ sessionsbetween Muslims and Christians in order to ease tensions and resolvedisputes.  This response is problematicand disturbing. In its 2009 annual human rights report on Egypt, the StateDepartment concluded that these sessions not only “prevented the prosecution ofperpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to thejudicial system for restitution,” but also “contributed to a climate ofimpunity that encouraged further assaults.”

    Shea went on to say that “the context is a government thathas failed to make the rights of religious minorities a priority,” adding thateven “Egypt’s government-controlled media and government-funded mosques haveengaged in incitement to violence.”

    For Christians in Iraq, the situation was desperate longbefore the October 31 attack caught international attention. Coordinatedattacks began in 2004 with the bombing of five churches in Baghdad and Mosul.In July 2009 seven churches were bombed in Baghdad on a single day. And whileIraq’s pre-war Christian population was only five percent, Iraq’s post-warrefugee population is a staggering forty percent Christian.

    “In 2003, there were at least 800,000 and as many as 1.4million Christians living in Iraq,” Shea testified. “It is now estimated thatonly half of that community remains in the country.”

    Attacks against Christians in these two countries, however,are part of a broader picture. Egypt’s is not the only government in the regionstained by a failure to defend the rights of its religious minorities. (LeeSmith wrote recently of the intensifying persecution of Christians in theMiddle East, with a focus on Lebanon’s Maronites, in a recent issue of THEWEEKLY STANDARD.)

    “Ahmadis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and Jews are underincreasing pressure in the region,” Wolf said when he introduced his bill theother week. Several hundred Baha’is have been arrested in Iran, and sevenBaha’i religious leaders are currently being held in prison by the Iraniangovernment. Militants in Pakistan attacked two Ahmadi mosques last May, killingat least 80 people. “According to the State Department’s 2010 InternationalReligious Freedom Report, Zoroastrians living in Iran also face persecution andblatant discrimination.”

    Through this legislation, Wolf is bringing greater attentionto an issue he believes must be “a foreign policy priority for America.”

    Since 2008, the State Department has designated over $25million for aiding religious minorities in Iraq, which Wolf calls a“much-improved focus.” Focus has not improved across the board, however, andhas noticeably decreased in other areas. The office of ambassador-at-large forthe U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a presidentialappointed position, has been vacant since Obama took office. This positionneeds to be filled, says Wolf: further steps must be taken, and more direct aidmust be given. “Someone who focused specifically on these issues would be awelcome addition to the state department.”

    “Our embassies should be ‘islands of freedom’, and they’vebeen anything but in the past two years,” said Wolf. “And the Bushadministration didn’t do much better.”

    “Women are being held in Pakistan for blasphemy, andChristians in Afghanistan are being held for their faith,” Wolf told me. “We’resending people to die In Iraq and Afghanistan, and Christians can’t evensurvive persecution. We’ve given 50 billion in aid to Egypt, and they’repersecuting Copts. We give Morocco hundreds of millions through a challengefund, and they expel Christians.” (The Millennium Challenge Corporation,established by Congress in 2004, signed a five-year, $697.5 million aid dealwith Morocco in 2007).

    Wolf told me he might advocate for withholding aid dollarsto nations that continue to allow (and support) the persecution of theirreligious minorities, striking money from states like Lebanon and Morocco ifexiles aren’t returned. In the short run, Wolf encourages the State Departmentto undertake a review of its aid policy to the persecuted minorities, and topromote international awareness of their plight through the office of a specialenvoy.

    “President Ronald Reagan once said that the U.S.Constitution is a ‘covenant that we have made not only with ourselves, but withall of mankind,’” Wolf aptly reminded Congress in his opening remarks lastweek. “I believe that the United States has an obligation to speak out for thevoiceless around the world, and I urge my colleagues to join me in supportingmy legislation.

    Read more here:


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