By Bob Allen
A Southern Baptist official and a Roman Catholic bishop signed a joint letter March 4 asking two U.S. senators to allow a vote on a bill that would create and fund a new envoy to promote religious liberty of minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on International Justice and Peace, asked Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) to lift a hold they placed on legislation introduced last March by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and 22 co-sponsors.
Coburn, a Southern Baptist, and Lee, a Mormon, voiced concerns about spending money to support a new, region-specific envoy when the State Department already has a position for a religious-freedom diplomat that remains unfilled. Suzan Johnson Cook, an ordained American Baptist minister, resigned as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom after 30 months on the job last fall.
Moore and Pates, however, say incidents like an October 2010 attack that killed 58 at a Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad and the destruction of some 40 Coptic churches in Egypt in August 2013 indicate a special envoy is needed to focus on areas where religious freedom is under threat.
Citing a recent study by the Pew Research Center that found high religious hostilities in one third of the world, they said a special envoy is needed “to focus on the dire situation affecting religious minorities, especially Christians who are the group most targeted for harassment and attacks in the largest number of countries.”
They said they envision the person working in partnership with the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, while “concentrating on the growing challenges of protecting historic Christian communities” and other religious minorities in the region.
“Our faith traditions are united in our commitment to protecting the poor and vulnerable and promoting religious freedom for all,” they said. “We urge you to consider the great need for freedom and the threat of often deadly persecution faced by religious minorities as they seek to worship and practice their faith and allow S. 653 to go forward for a vote now.”
Similar legislation in the House co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) passed by a wide margin last September.