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U.S. House Oks Religious Liberty Envoy

BY TOM STRODE                                                                                                               ©2013 Baptist Press

The U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring appointment of a special envoy for the promotion of religious liberty in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria.

The head of the Southern Baptist Convention's religious freedom entity hailed passage of the "forward-thinking legislation" as the "right thing."

In a September 18 roll call, House members voted 402-22 for the legislation, which would direct the president to name an envoy within the State Department to advance freedom for religious minorities in the Near East -- also referred to as the Middle East -- and South-Central Asia. The Senate has yet to act on the measure.

A two-fold reason undergirds Christian support of such legislation, said Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

"Jesus told Saul of Tarsus that his intended persecution of Christians in Syria was persecution of Jesus himself. That's one of the reasons the body of Christ must stand firm against the torture and harassment of believing communities in the Middle East and elsewhere," Moore said in a statement to Baptist Press.

"Moreover, as Baptist Christians, we believe in religious freedom and liberty of conscience for all persons, not just for Christians and not just for Americans with First Amendment guarantees," he said. "Religious liberty is a natural right, given by God and grounded in human dignity."

Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., whom Moore called "heroic," is lead sponsor of the bill, which the ERLC and a variety of other organizations have endorsed. Wolf also led in passage of a similar measure in 2011, when the House approved it by an almost identical vote, 402-20. The Senate -- with the State Department leading the opposition, Wolf said -- failed to vote on that bill.

All "no" votes in 2011 came from Republicans, and this year Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas joined 21 GOP members in opposing the legislation.

Individual Christians and adherents of other religious faiths are targets of repression and violence in countries in both regions, and the existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some areas -- most notably Egypt and Iraq. Among its duties, a special envoy would monitor religious freedom conditions in the regions and recommend responses by Washington to violations of religious rights.

The bill mandates the special envoy will prioritize activities in five countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan.  

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