President Barack Obama signed a bill Sunday to combat religious persecution globally – just days after United States Congress passed the legislation known as the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
For the remaining month the Obama administration is in office, America’s foreign policy will change so that the State Department will play a larger role in fighting the persecution of religious minorities around the world.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) co-sponsored the bill so that governments, dictatorial regimes and militant religious groups – such as ISIS – will no longer play mind police and tell individuals who and what they can worship.
"As a world leader for freedom and the protection of basic human rights, the United States should take every opportunity to advocate for people to think, believe and act according to their religious belief – whether they belong to a minority or majority religion," Lankford stated.
The newly passed and signed legislation was dedicated to a longstanding champion of the Christian faith.
“The bill, HR 1150, is named after a recently retired Congressman who is a fervent advocate for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities around the world,” The Christian Post reported. “Wolf, who represented Virginia's 10th Congressional district since 1981 and is a devout Presbyterian, retired last year.”
Just in time to add a new dimension to the role of the secretary of state under the incoming Trump administration, the new act is geared to free people of all faiths to worship and exercise their religious beliefs according to their conscience.
“The bill updates the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, signed by then President Bill Clinton to establish within the U.S. Department of State an office designed specifically to address religious freedom concerns around the world,” The Christian Post’s Anugrah Kumar informed.
Bigger and better
A wider scope, a greater focus, and higher accountability are all hallmarks of the newly passed bill.
“The upgraded legislation includes provisions aimed at strengthening key positions within the federal government to make religious freedom a top priority,” Kumar explained. “The bill ensures that the Ambassador-at-Large reports directly to the Secretary of State – and not a lower-ranking official.”
Under the newly passed legislation, a minimum number of employees will be required to staff the IRFA office.
“[A full staff is guaranteed to make sure that religious freedom will not] become politically irrelevant according to the whims or indifference of an administration," expressed Matthew Hawkins, who serves with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) on its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
It is also pointed out that the practice of preparing staff to effectively fight persecution will not be thrown to the wayside, and persecution will now be dealt with according to the intensity of affliction taking place in a given region.
“Training that is currently optional regarding the ‘strategic value of international religious freedom’ will now be mandatory for all Foreign Service Officers,” Kumar noted. “The bill also more accurately categorizes degrees and types of religious persecution.”
Under the new policy, a wider array of distinctions will be used to more accurately rate the degree of persecution taking place in nations, according to the Catholic News Agency. No longer will the State Department have to rely on overly broad rankings, which included a “Country of Particular Concern” – where the nation’s government either persecutes specific religious groups itself or knowingly permits it to take place – and a “compliant nation,” which is where religious liberty is protected.
Now, more detailed designations will help the State Department more effectively deal with violators of religious freedom.
“A lower-tier ‘Special Watch List’ for nations with bad track records on respecting religious freedom has been added,” Kumar informed. “And the government is now required to create and maintain a ‘comprehensive religious prisoners list’ for people who have been jailed unjustly.”
Broad support for an increasing problem
The originators and backers of the soon-to-be-enforced act come from diverse political and religious backgrounds.
“The bill's two original co-sponsors were Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, a liberal Democrat from California who co-chairs the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus,” Kumar continued. “The bill was backed by Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders, and Republicans and Democrats.”
World Help President and Founder Vernon Brewer pointed out that an unprecedented amount of persecution is now taking place globally, and Obama’s signing of the bill did not come a moment too early.
"At no other time in history have Christians been as persecuted as they are now," expressed Dr. Brewer, whose Christian humanitarian organization helps those in the persecuted Church globally. "Some estimate more Christians have been martyred for their faith in the past century than in the previous 19 combined, and persecution in the Middle East, Africa and Asia seems to be on the rise."