New Envoy Will Defend Religious Freedom Overseas

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

An end to the debt limit crisis isn’t the only battle being fought in the U.S. House these days. Lawmakers are also taking on the fight to protect religious minorities around the world by creating a new diplomatic post that will be charged with defending religious freedom overseas.

Fox News is reporting that Rep. Frank Wolf, (R-VA) has authored a proposal to create a new envoy position who will monitor religious discrimination in dozens of Middle Eastern countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Libya, among others. The new diplomat will be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate and would be tasked with monitoring discrimination and working with foreign governments to deal with “inherently discriminatory” laws. The envoy would also work with nongovernmental organizations and report back to the Secretary of State on those issues.

The proposal has bipartisan support from a wide range of lawmakers, including conservative Christians.

“If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak,” Wolf said on the floor of the House.

Kalinda Stephenson, an aide to Congressman Wolf, said her boss realized the need for such a position during a recent trip to Egypt, where members of religious minorities expressed concern about their rights.

“With all the political upheaval that’s going on in the Middle East … they feel it’s created a political vacuum, and it’s left these religious minorities particularly vulnerable,” she told Fox.

Several serious attacks on religious minorities have occurred in just the past year, such as the killing of dozens of Iraqi Christians who were murdered in a Baghdad church last year. Months later, a deadly bombing at a Coptic Christian church in  Alexandria, Egypt left dozens more dead. This was followed by the assassination of Pakistan’s only Christian Cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti, who was a close personal friend of Congressman Wolf.

 When asked if lawmakers were looking for somebody of a particular denomination, Stephenson said,”I don’t think there’s a preference.”

Several candidates are being considered, such as John Hanford, a former ambassador- at- large for religious freedom, who served in the State Department during the Bush Administration.

Outside organizations that support the creation of the position are also mulling over who might be a good fit.

Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council told Fox her group wants somebody “dedicated and passionate” in the post. In an email, she cited concern about “the plight of the Christians in the Middle East, especially in Iraq.”

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Photo is of Congressman Wolf in his office

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