On July 29, House members voted 402-20 for the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, H.R. 440. All 20 "no" votes came from Republicans.
The Senate has yet to vote on the proposal.
The bill -- endorsed by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and a variety of other organizations -- would create a post in the State Department for a special envoy to protect the rights of religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Individual Christians and adherents of other religious faiths are targets of repression and violence in countries in these regions, and the existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some -- most notably religious communities in Iraq. Among his duties, a special envoy would monitor religious freedom conditions in these regions and recommend responses by Washington to violations of religious rights.
"The U.S. government needs an individual who can respond and focus on the critical situation of religious minorities in these countries whose basic human rights are increasingly under assault," Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., said in a written release after the vote. Wolf is chief sponsor of the bill. "If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak."
ERLC President Richard Land endorsed the legislation in a March letter to Wolf. He also signed with 35 others onto a June letter to House and Senate leaders urging adoption of the bill.
"The moral imperative for attention to protect religious minorities being targeted in these countries is clear.... ," Land and the others said in a June 27 letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "The future of democracy in the Near East and South Central Asia will be determined in part by whether protection for the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief ... is fully respected for all people."
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif, is the lead Democratic sponsor.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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