Legislation for Religious Envoy Lacks Focus

Washington, D.C. (September 14, 2011) - In a letter sent earlier this week to Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Richard D. Lugar (R-IN), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) conveyed its serious reservations with S.1245,the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2011.
The bill establishes a Special Envoy position within the U.S. Department of State responsible for promoting religious freedom for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. According to the Foundation, however, the bill is inequitable in its approach and will not effectively further America's interests in safeguarding minority rights around the world.
"There is no doubt that religious minorities in many parts of the Near East and South Central Asia face a multitude of human rights violations and restrictions on religious freedom," said Samir Kalra, Esq., HAF Director. "However, we believe that the mandate of any such Special Envoy should not be broadly based, but should instead focus on those countries with deplorable human rights records, including nations designated by the State Department as ‘Countries of Particular Concern’.”
The Foundation expressed further concerns about whether the Special Envoy position would pursue an inclusive approach to international religious freedom that protects the rights of all religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. Alluding to language contained in the Findings of H.R. 440 (the U.S. House of Representatives version of S.1245), the Foundation noted with disappointment that while the genuine threats faced by Christian populations in the region were recognized, references to the plight of other persecuted faith groups, such as Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, were inexplicably absent from the bill. HAF has documented such human rights violations against Hindus and other religious minorities in its annual human rights report, entitled Hindus in South Asia and the Diaspora: A Survey of Human Rights 2010, as have other prominent human rights watchdog groups.
S.1245 was introduced in the Senate on June 22, 2011, after passing in the House of Representatives as H.R. 440 and has currently been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kalra noted that the House version of the bill pinpointed Pakistan and Afghanistan as “priority” countries of concern.
"Focusing a bill with specific mention of countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Iran, for example, would strengthen this bill and narrow its sights on regions of the world where religious persecution is rampant,” added Kalra. “The bill’s Senate version is inexplicably devoid of the ‘priority’ language that risks creating a diplomatic position that may become sidetracked and politicized.”
HAF leaders also questioned the efficacy of creating the Special Envoy position when its role and duties would not be significantly different from that of the State Department’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom or the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), especially given the nation’s current debt crisis and budgetary constraints.
"Rather than enacting new legislation that needlessly duplicates the efforts of established positions and institutions, we implore Congress to address the urgent issues of human rights and religious freedom utilizing the existing government infrastructure and diplomatic missions,” said Jay Kansara, HAF Associate Director. “At the same time, it is crucial to strengthen the current structure by incorporating an equitable, comprehensive, and pluralistic paradigm.”
Please click here to read the letter.