By Erin Rodewald // December 19, 2016
(This article originally appeared in The Philos Project)
It is difficult to see past the evil.
In the waning days of 2016, we are reminded of it on a daily basis, particularly (though not exclusively) the evil that is making headlines in the Middle East. Aleppo is drenched in blood. A Christian mother of five languishes in a dank Pakistani prison cell, charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death for drinking a glass of water. Lives have been shattered with the bombing of Egypt’s main Coptic Christian Cathedral during a packed worship service. Iraq’s ancient Christian community is all but extinct, ravaged by genocide and unspeakable atrocities.
Trace the roots of this evil and you will find at its core religious persecution–the attempt by a powerful few to crush the most sacred of human rights: the freedom of conscience. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a staggering 75 percent of the world’s 7.2 billion humans live in areas of severe religious persecution. While the study revealed that the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion are found in the Middle East–where Christianity, Judaism and Islam originated–evidence of oppression in other corners of the world is all too prevalent.
Some would argue that the West–most notably America–has averted its gaze and turned its back on the persecuted. “It is a shameful and incontrovertible fact of our history that during the past eight years, the values of rescue, assistance, protection, humanitarianism and democracy have been demoted in our foreign policy and in many instances banished altogether,” wrote Leon Wieseltier, the Isaiah Berlin senior fellow in culture and policy at the Brookings Institution.
History will judge the missteps, missed opportunities and negligence of this mean time, but most will agree that there has been a pronounced darkening in our world this year. How do we find the strength and courage to pierce that darkness?
John 1:5 said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Therefore, to pierce the darkness, we must start by turning on the light.
Former Congressman Frank R. Wolf has been turning on the lights for decades. This is one man with the passion and moral clarity to bring awareness and relief to the plight of persecuted people in dark, beleaguered places like Darfur, Iraq, Nigeria and China. In 1998, he sponsored legislation that created the bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. On Dec. 13, Congress passed H.R. 1150–aptly titled the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act–which amended the earlier legislation and expanded the ability of the United States to advance religious freedom through enhanced diplomacy, training, counterterrorism and foreign assistance efforts, and through stronger, more flexible political responses to religious freedom violations and violent extremism worldwide.
“The bill is named after former Congressman Frank Wolf, a tireless champion for the rights of the poor and the persecuted globally,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-CA). “Eighteen years ago, he had the foresight to make advancing the right to religious freedom a high U.S. foreign policy priority. It is largely because of his efforts that religious freedom is taken seriously as a foreign policy issue.”
President Barack Obama signed H.R. 1150 into law shortly after its congressional approval. The legislation will now provide new and enhanced tools to combat religious persecution, including the creation of a “designated persons list” for individuals who commit egregious violations of religious freedom. It will also create a religious prisoners list of people who are detained, imprisoned, tortured and subjected to forced renunciation of faith. The bill strengthens the special advisor for religious freedom at the National Security Council and integrates religious freedom into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. It requires international religious training for all Foreign Service officers and elevates the position of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom within the federal government.
Perhaps the single most important feature introduced with H.R. 1150 is the creation of an “Entity of Particular Concern” designation for non-state actors. The original International Religious Freedom Act provided for a mechanism to monitor and hold accountable the bad behavior of nations only. The new classification strengthens and modernizes IRFA by extending the U.S. State Department’s reach to terrorist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda, which are not otherwise affiliated with a single state.
“America was founded in part by people fleeing religious persecution, and the U.S. has a moral responsibility to be a champion for oppressed people around the world,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who introduced the companion legislation to H.R. 1150 in the Senate with senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and John Cornyn (R-TX). “When it comes to universal human rights that must be respected, few are more fundamental to the human spirit than the freedom to live out your faith according to your conscience, without fear of persecution, violence or imprisonment.”
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act was born of one man’s compassion and outrage. It stands as a beacon in a dark world because of the hard work of dedicated public servants who have plodded forward tirelessly, despite grim events and escalating human cruelty.
It is not the only light that is required, however, and it would be an oversimplification to think that this one act will reverse the trajectory of the evil gripping our world. It is essential that our leaders remove the blinders and confront the hard realities that await us in 2017. It is equally important for us–as we are able–to educate ourselves and recommit to adding to the collective glow.
The Philos Project is dedicated to promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, and there are many ways to lend support to those efforts. Likewise, groups like Open Doors, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, International Christian Concern and Samaritan’s Purse offer ways for individuals to help penetrate the darkness through education, advocacy, prayer and monetary support.
This year, include a little light in your New Year’s resolution.