The FAQs: Congress Strengthens International Religious Freedom Law

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What just happened?

Last week Congress voted unanimously to passed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, an amendment to a landmark international religious freedom law. President Obama signed the legislation into law on Friday.

What is the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act?

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2015 (H.R. 1150, S. 2878) is an amendment to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), which established the International Religious Freedom Office (IRFO) within the Department of State and the independently operating United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Together, these organizations were founded in order to “(1) condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion; and (2) seek to channel U.S. security and development assistance to governments that are found not to be engaged in gross violations of the right to freedom of religion.”

Who is Frank R. Wolf?

The act is named for Frank R. Wolf, the recently retired Virginia congressman who sponsored the original 1998 legislation. During his 17 terms in office, Wolf was one of Congress’s most vocal champions of religious liberty and other human rights.

What does the legislation do?

According to Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the cosponsor of the legislation, this amendment will expand the IRFA to better address escalating religious persecution globally and help the administration and the State Department to more effectively respond to violent extremism worldwide.

The law will improve U.S. religious freedom diplomacy efforts globally; better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism; address anti-Semitism and religious persecution; and mitigate sectarian conflict. Specifically, the bill:

  • Creates a “Designated Persons List” for individuals who commit egregious violations of religious freedom
  • Creates a comprehensive religious prisoners list—persons who are detained, imprisoned, tortured, and subject to forced renunciation of faith.
  • Integrates religious freedom into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy
  • Strengthens the special adviser for religious freedom at the National Security Council
  • Requires international religious freedom training for all Foreign Service Officers
  • Requires that the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom report directly to the Secretary of State
  • Elevates the position of the ambassador within the federal government
  • Creates an “Entity of Particular Concern” designation for non-state actors like terrorist groups
  • Requires more frequent presidential actions to counter severe religious freedom violations globally
  • Creates a “Special Watch List”—two-tier system at State (CPC countries/Special Watch List)
  • Sets congressional expectations for staffing of the IRF office and expansion of Religious Freedom Program grants

Who supported the law?

This act is one of the few pieces of legislation that has received both bipartisan political support and endorsements by a broad range of ecumenical organizations.

“The passage of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act shows a strong coalition working together for the cause of international religious freedom,” said Russell Moore, a TGC Council member and president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The bipartisan nature of this passage shows us that religious freedom does not have to be a partisan issue but is rooted in our deepest commitments as Americans, and I hope that persecuted religious minorities around the globe will see that they have not been forgotten. While the passage of this act by no means solves the religious freedom crisis around the world, it is a step in the right direction.”

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