There is a major disconnect right now inside the beltway. We have heard statements by both President Trump and Vice President Pence about their commitment to Religious Liberty. So why is the State Department, which is tasked to carry out their vision, not on the same page?
In 1998 Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which was updated and extended by the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016. Under the terms of this legislation it is mandated that the State Department designate a list of “Countries of Particular Concern.” This is a list that is compiled of nations violating religious liberty in a systematic, ongoing and egregious manner.
Under the terms of the above mentioned legislation any country that meets the dubious criteria has to be designated as such no more than 90 days after the release of the annual report on International Religious Freedom. That report was released on August 15th, 2017. That deadline expired on November 14th, 2017 without any nations being recommended.
Why was this overlooked by the State Department? When the report was released Secretary of State Tillerson was lauded for his remarks. Speaking at the event the Secretary said that religious freedom is a “core American value and universal human right.” For whatever reason, however, this deadline slipped through the cracks.
So what does this mean? The list of countries that was submitted to State by USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) will not be designated. The Frank Wolf Act was designed to resolve this issue. But due to apathy, or preferring to use a different tract of diplomacy, this gives at least a surface impression that religious freedom is not as large of a concern amongst the diplomatic corps.
What countries have the dubious honor of making the list? They are Burma, Eritrea, Central African Republic, China, North Korea, Nigeria, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Vietnam, Syria, Pakistan, Sudan and Tajikistan. Chairman Daniel Mark of USCIRF urges that the State Department rapidly make these designations. He feels that it will send a strong message that the United States is paying attention to and taking these violations very seriously.
There is another provision of the Frank Wolf Act that needs to be used by the State Department as well. There are provisions for non-state actors to be considered as “Entities of Particular Concern” (EPCs). This means that under the terms of the law and the recommendation of USCIRF, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Shabaab in Somalia would be listed. However the Trump Administration is not legally required to make these designations at this time.
For those in the United States who advocate on behalf of this issue there once again is a sense of disappointment. The energy spent by these organizations and their members to seek redress not only through the State Department by their allies in Congress probably will cause a sense of frustration among these defenders of religious liberty. But they should not be discouraged. It says in scripture “Let not your heart be troubled.” That is an excellent tactic to use in this situation as we patiently push forward our advocacy for the persecuted. And particularly as Christmas approaches, we should also remember the prophetic and hopeful words of Mary the Mother of Jesus:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.