- Catholic News Agency - Sunday, April 19, 2015

A House bill boosting promotion of religious freedom abroad could deter terror groups like the Islamic State, protect vulnerable minorities and foster global security, advocates say.

The bill is “an important first step in improving the ability of our nation to advance religious freedom globally,” Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, said in an April 10 letter to Congress.

“The increase in violence perpetrated against religious minorities has reached staggering proportions,” he warned.

The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2015 passed the House Subcommittee for Global Human Rights on Thursday and adds to the existing International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

It mandates education and training for ambassadors and foreign service officers — all the way down to the entry-level — to promote religious freedom abroad.

The bill also creates an interagency committee chaired by the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom — currently Rabbi David Saperstein — that would develop a global strategy for promoting religious freedom.

The power to sanction individuals for egregious abuses of religious freedom is also granted to the president under the proposed legislation.

“The bill we passed 15 years ago needs to be updated to match the new challenges of the 21st century,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, New Jersey Republican, who authored the legislation.

“A robust religious freedom diplomacy is necessary to advance our nation’s interest in the stability, security, and economic development of countries we engage with around the globe,” he said.

He cited global threats to religious freedom — from the bloody terrorism of the Islamic State, al Shabbab, and Boko Haram to the rising anti-Semitism in Europe — to show the need for a stronger U.S. foreign policy on religious freedom. He added that “governmental restrictions on the freedom of religion are at a seven-year high,” citing the Pew Research Foundation.

The bill cites “growing evidence” of “a connection between the absence of religious freedom and increased levels of persecution of religious minorities, religiously motivated conflict, violent extremism, and terrorism, including the kind of terrorism that has reached the United States.”

“More robust efforts to advance religious freedom diplomatically will advance U.S. values around the world and help protect vulnerable religious minorities,” added the bill’s leading co-sponsor, Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat.

The original International Religious Freedom Act was a landmark bill that created an ambassador position for international religious freedom in the State Department.

It also started the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which promotes religious liberty abroad and authors a yearly report on the state of global religious freedom that includes recommendations for the State Department’s list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for human rights and religious freedom abuses.

The new bill re-authorizes this commission until 2021 and expedites the process by which an ambassador is chosen. The post has been vacant for much of President Obama’s tenure.

Bishop Cantu cited Pope Francis’ statements of solidarity with persecuted Christians in his support for the new bill.

“At Easter, Pope Francis acknowledged ‘the suffering of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for [Christ’s] name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence’,” the bishop said.

“The Holy Father went on to name violent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, the Holy Land, Libya, Nigeria, and most recently Kenya, many of which have a dimension of religious persecution or ethnic/sectarian tensions that have taken on religious overtones.”

“The Catholic Church views protection of religious freedom as a ‘cornerstone of the structure of human rights’,” he added, “since it is rooted in the dignity of the human person.”

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