In 2011, Congressman Frank R. Wolf introduced the first bill to amend and strengthen the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). When Congress failed to pass that amendment before Congressman Wolf retired in January 2015, Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) introduced the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.
Participants in the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable, an informal nongovernmental group of individuals who analyze and advise on religious freedom issues, have been advocating for this legislation since that time.
The IRF Roundtable sent three multifaith letters—with 51 signatures in 2011; 61 signatures in 2015; and 73 signatures in 2016—urging Congressional leaders to support passage of this important initiative. This analysis and summary of the new law rely on the content on these multifaith letters and the final bill that passed into law.
The passage of IRFA in 1998 was a seminal moment for the United States. There was considerable hope that religious freedom would gradually assume its position as a functional, vital aspect of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.
Unfortunately, in the 18 years since its passage, the mechanisms created by IRFA have been allowed to wither and atrophy, and IRF policy has not been integrated into U.S. foreign policy and national security. As a result, it has become clear that our IRF policy has not had significant impact on other governments and on levels of religious freedom, repression and persecution.
The current state of international religious freedom is one of deep crisis.
In fact, the current state of international religious freedom is one of deep crisis. Assaults on religious freedom around the world are systemic and growing.
According to the Pew Research Center, the percent of the world’s population that live in countries with a high or very high overall level of restriction on religion rose from 68% in 2007, 74% in 2011, 76% in 2012, to 77% in 2013. This is an inherently destabilizing fact in a world where 84% of the planet’s inhabitants reportedly believe in something greater than themselves.
Pew’s most recent study on global restrictions on religion reported a modest overall decline: “Roughly three-quarters of the world’s 7.2 billion people (74%) were living in countries with high or very high restrictions or hostilities in 2014, down slightly from 77% in 2013.”
But Pew also reported that this modest decline “took place despite a marked increase in the number of countries that experienced religion-related terrorist activities, including acts carried out by such groups as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL).”
The Need to Strengthen IRFA and U.S. Policy
First, religious freedom is perhaps the most personal and fundamental of all human rights, reflecting the very core and dignity of a human being.
Second, the advance of international religious freedom is a national security imperative for America and the entire world. Religious freedom strengthens culture and provides the foundation for a stable democracy and its components, including civil society, economic growth, and social harmony. From Cyrus’ Cylinder to Roger Williams’ 1663 Colonial Charter, history and modern scholarship make it clear that religious freedom is an effective counterweight that undermines religious extremism; where people are allowed to practice their faith freely, they are less likely to be alienated from the government, and more likely to be good citizens; where there is religious freedom, there is economic development, women’s empowerment, and political stability. On the other hand, absence of freedom of religion or belief is associated with religious conflict, instability, extremism and terrorism.
The advance of international religious freedom is a national security imperative for America and the entire world.
Finally, we must work to create a context where people can live together with their deepest differences. The turmoil and bloodshed in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria—including the Islamic State’s genocide against Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and others—offers the latest examples of what happens if we do not.
With a stronger IRF policy, the U.S. will have a much greater impact on levels of religious repression, persecution, violence and terrorism around the world.
The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act
The purpose of the new law is to update, modernize and strengthen IRFA in order to improve and increase the capacity of the U.S. government to advance religious freedom globally.
First, it adds an overview policy statement that effectively updates the scope of IRFA and clarifies that international religious freedom is a foreign policy and national security priority. It states that because the promotion of international religious freedom advances U.S. “interests in stability, security, and development globally,” then “new and evolving policies and diplomatic responses” are required, drawn from “the expertise of all Federal agencies” and coordinated throughout the entire Executive Branch. Further, it expresses the sense of Congress that the annual national security strategy report of the President should promote international religious freedom as a foreign policy and national security priority and should articulate that promoting religious freedom is a strategy that protects other related human rights and advances democracy outside the United States; and the national security strategy report should be a guide for the strategies and activities of relevant Federal agencies and inform the Department of Defense’s quadrennial defense review.
Second, the following provisions could be viewed as “the big 3” changes, viewed by certain experts as most important to strengthen and increase the effectiveness of U.S. International Religious Freedom policy:
- Section 101 strengthens the standing of the International Religious Freedom Office (IRF Office) within the State Department by requiring that the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom reports directly to the Secretary of State and is the principal adviser to the Secretary on international religious freedom matters; giving the Ambassador at Large new coordination responsibilities on international religious freedom policies across all programs, projects, and activities of the United States; and requiring “appropriate staff” for the IRF Office.
- Section 103 requires the development of a curriculum for training Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) on the “scope and strategic value of international religious freedom”; incorporates such training for FSOs at several career levels within a year of the amendments’ enactment; and requires the curriculum and training materials to be shared with other relevant Federal agencies.
- Section 401 should result in increased U.S. financial assistance for promoting religious freedom by stating it is the sense of Congress that the President should request sufficient funds to support the vigorous promotion of international religious freedom and that an effective Religious Freedom Defense Fund, administered by the Ambassador, should be established; and that grants should be prioritized for work to be undertaken in any “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) and “Special Watch List” countries (as described below).
Third, Section 302 strengthens presidential responses to particularly severe religious freedom violations:
- Requires the President to make “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) designations not later than 90 days after the release of each year’s annual IRF report.
- Requires the President to place on a “Special Watch List” each country that engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom during the previous year, but which does not meet the CPC threshold.
Fourth, Section 301 updates and modernizes IRFA by placing a new focus on non-state actors, which includes groups that carry out religion-related terrorist activities, such as the Islamic State:
- Requires the President to annually identify non-state actors engaging in particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and designate them as an “Entity of Particular Concern.”
- Requires the President to take specific actions, where practicable, to address the religious freedom abuses of non-state actors; and urges the Secretary of State to work with Congress and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) to develop “new political, financial, and diplomatic tools” to address the religious freedom violations of non-state actors.
- Acknowledges that ultimately governments must be held accountable for abuses that occur in their territories and that any actions the President takes should also involve high-level diplomacy with the government where the non-state actor is operating.
- Directs the President to “seek to determine specific officials or members” responsible for religious freedom violations.
Fourth, Section 501 creates a “Designated Persons List”:
- Directs the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Ambassador at Large and in consultation with relevant government and nongovernment experts, to establish and maintain a list of foreign individuals who have been denied visas or are subject to sanctions for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
Finally, Section 104 creates “Prisoner Lists” and issue briefs on religious freedom concerns:
- Requires the State Department to make religious freedom issue briefs available to executive branch officials and members of Congress in anticipation of bilateral contacts with foreign officials.
- Requires USCIRF, to the extent practicable, to compile and make publicly available updated lists of persons it determines are imprisoned, detained, disappeared, placed under house arrest, tortured, or subject to forced renunciations of faith for their religious activity or religious freedom advocacy by a foreign government that the Commission recommends for designation as a country of particular concern or a non-state actor recommended for designation as an entity of particular concern under Section 301 of this legislation.
Implementation of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act… will send a clear and urgent message regarding the inherent dignity of every human being…
Implementation of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act will result in a strengthened IRFA, as well as integration of this foundational human right into U.S. foreign policy and national security strategies. In so doing, the United States will send a clear and urgent message regarding the inherent dignity of every human being, while advancing global security in the fight against persecution, religious extremism and terrorism.