Is Religious Freedom the First Freedom?

4291946136_eac45f0157“Religious freedom is right.  Religious freedom works. But promoting it remains marginal to U.S. foreign policy.  Not good; not smart, either.”-Thomas Farr

H.R. 301, introduced by Rep. Frank Wolf,( R-VA) and Rep. Anna Eshoo, (D-CA), is a bill that would create a special envoy via the State Department focusing exclusively on the plight of religious minorities in South Central Asia and the Middle East.  It was overwhelmingly passed in a show of bi-partisan support on Wednesday, September 18th. At the end of the day, the vote count was 402-22. The same bill had been brought to the floor before, and again, received almost unanimous support. Voting against it were 21 Republicans and one lone Democrat. In a press release dated September 18, Rep. Wolf applauded the passage of the bill: “…I was convinced then and remain convinced today that religious minorities in the Middle East and in key countries in South Central Asia, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, need someone who can be their voice both within the halls of Foggy Bottom and abroad with foreign governments…”

Rep. Wolf’s office issued a statement exclusively for  “This is an issue Mr. Wolf has been passionate about for years, and he was very pleased to see it pass so strongly in the House this week. He urges the Senate to act on it, as well.”

What would propel Rep. Wolf and Rep. Ashoo to re-introduce a bill that never made it to the Senate floor the first time and is vehemently opposed by the State Department?

Rep. Wolf and Rep. Ashoo wrote:

Acting with the belief that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless and advocate for basic human rights and religious freedom wherever they are under assault, we introduced bipartisan legislation in January 2011 to appoint a special envoy within the State Department whose responsibility would be to work on behalf of minorities in the Middle East and south central Asia…

At the time we introduced the legislation, the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom had been vacant for two years.  No one was “at the helm” to guide the State Department on critical religious freedom issues. Ultimately, the post was filled, but in the months that followed, the “Arab Spring” unleashed an unforeseeable chain of events in the Middle East that have had devastating implications for the region’s religious minorities, many of whom have inhabited these lands for centuries. The consequences of the Arab Spring for religious minorities have confirmed that the need for a special envoy is as great as it’s ever been. That is why we have reintroduced our special envoy legislation (H.R. 301) in the new Congress and are committed to pressing for Congressional action in both chambers this year…

A special envoy could help develop policy options to ensure the protection and preservation of these ancient faith communities while also serving as a high-level advocate within our own government and with foreign governments.

One of the Republicans who has voted against the bill both times is Rep. Justin Amash, (TX). In another exclusive for, Rep. Amash said, “The proposed duties of the special envoy are also duplicative of activities already performed by other federal offices and non-profits.”

What are the “duplicative offices and activities”? The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) chartered the bipartisan and independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is charged with advising the State Department and Capitol Hill on protecting religious freedoms abroad. It also created the State Department’s position of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, and requires the State Department to name “countries of particular concern” that most egregiously violate religious liberties.

Rep. Wolf said, “Last Congress, this legislation overwhelmingly passed the House only to stall in the Senate in the face of opposition by the State Department – the same State Department which, to date, has failed to designate any Countries of Particular Concern for egregious religious freedom violations since August 2011, despite being required by law to do so annually.”

In July, The State Department announced the creation of its first office dedicated to outreach to the global faith community and religious leaders. “The project, born in part of recommendations by its working group on religion and foreign policy, which is expected to focus on religion and development, international religious freedom, and conflict prevention and resolution…”

Those Republicans that voted “Nay” against the creation of a special envoy based on the fact that there are already “duplicative offices”  within The State Department are absolutely correct Troubling, and at issue, is the fact that those engaged in   “duplicative activities” within these offices have no authority to advocate for persecuted religious minorities in real policy-making. In other words, they operate “in name only”.

Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, was the first director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom in 1999-2003 and is still deeply involved in advancing religious freedom. In his June 13 testimony [all emphasis mine] before the National Security Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he stated, “Religious freedom advances the cause of peace, for countries that violate the first freedom internally are, in the main, countries “whose internal stability, economic policies, and foreign policies are of substantial concern to the United States.”

He also said “anemic, largely rhetorical methodology” by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has resulted in “a loss of conviction among policy makers that religious freedom is the first freedom.”

To cite Farr’s testimony:

Why is difficult to name a single country in the world over the past fifteen years where American religious freedom policy has helped to reduce religious persecution or to increase religious freedom in any substantial or sustained way?”  The opposite is true: “in most of the countries where the United States has in recent years poured blood, treasure, and diplomatic resources (such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia), levels of religious freedom are declining and religious persecution is rising…

The Office of International Religious Freedom was established in the State Department by congressional mandate;  State’s permanent bureaucracy, like other permanent bureaucracies, is exceptionally skillful at hermetically sealing off anything it regards as an alien body from the serious policy-planning action.  Thus the office and the U.S. special ambassador for international religious freedom (a post also mandated by Congress) have often been isolated within State, underfunded, and cut off from access to the Secretary of State and other officials with real policy-making authority…

Would Representatives Frank Wolf and Anna Ashoo continually bang the drum for religious freedom if the State Department, in their creation of offices and activities, were doing their job? In a word, no.

Some may have concerns about over- involvement in other countries. Others may feel that we  are not the World’s policeman, we have our own issues at home to contend with, or that we should be concerned about separation between church and state.  However, it is a fact that offices have been created and funded within the State Department,  positions have been filled, and laws have been written, all in the name of helping those victimized for their religion. It is also a fact that the “Arab Spring” has resulted in a horrific spike of untold atrocities against people of faith. It would appear, from the sounds of silence throughout the halls of “Foggy Bottom” that Religious Freedom is no longer the First Freedom.  Far from it.


Lydia Susanne has conducted exclusive interviews with Israeli author Lela Gilbert, activist and lead singer of KANSAS John Elefonte, Todd Daniels of International Christian Concern, and Bob Fu of China Aid, among other notable subjects for

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