American leadership required for international religious freedoms

Absent strong, principled U.S. leadership the future for religious minorities in the Middle East will indeed be much worse. Photo: Rahat Husain

WASHINGTON, June 19, 2013 –Panelists at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s unique session entitled “The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East” last week focused their remarks on the incredible persecution faced by religious minorities in the Middle East, which is particularly directed towards Jews, Christians, and Shia Muslims.  

“…Absent strong, principled U.S. leadership on this fundamental human right, the future for religious minorities in the Middle East will indeed be much worse” were some of the closing remarks given by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) at the event.  

A major theme presented was the fact that the both the Obama and Bush administrations have not given much precedence to protecting religious minorities in the Middle East, often with disastrous results for the ignored minorities.

Former Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA) highlighted repression faced by Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, underscoring the fact that Muslim minorities face the same troubles as Christians and Jews in Muslim majority countries. She promoted the idea of reconciliation amongst the various groups in the Middle East who sometimes violently oppose one another. Speakers on the panel agreed that the White House and State Department need to take the lead on promoting freedoms for religious minorities, suggesting the promotion of various interfaith groups in the region.

Sheikh Fadhil Sahlani, a prominent leader in the American Shia community, passionately asserted that the Shia Muslim community enjoyed regular and pleasant relationships with Jewish and Christian populations around the world. Professor Robert Destro, of the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University, echoed the sentiment, expressing the need for the “prospect of a tolerant endgame” alluding to international efforts to bring understanding and resolution to groups in the West and Middle East.

Countries such as Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt face an astonishing set of crises on multiple fronts.  While “experts” focus on apparent changes in government, and the relative importance of various groups in each country, the larger dialogue of persecution of religious minorities goes mostly unnoticed. The Independent reported that Syrian rebels massacred 60 Shia Muslims in the town of Hatla; Fox News covered an Egyptian court’s conviction of a Christian elementary school teacher for violating blasphemy laws; and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its Annual Report in April of this year, and said of Bahrain “The government crackdown on dissent and opposition over the past two years has negatively impacted religious freedom in the country….”

Despite the reporting of these stories by mainstream news sources and federal agencies, neither the media nor the government has drawn significant attention to the plight of such religious minorities in the Middle East.

This continues, despite the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) signed into law in 1998, which created a “Countries of Particular Concern” designation, reserved for those countries with the most severe systematic, ongoing and egregious violations.  Congressman Wolf testified that the CPC designation “has been grossly under-utilized—this administration has failed to even designate ANY CPC’s since 2011.”

At a recent hearing of the National Security Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Congressman continued “There was near unanimity that over the course of successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, IRFA had not been implemented as Congress intended.”

Issuing a somber analysis of likely changes to policies related to the protection of religious minorities, Congressman Wolf states: “The IRF [International Religious Freedoms] office is presently buried in the bureaucracy.  The ambassador, a fine person, is marginalized.  The issue itself, America’s first freedom, is viewed as periphery.”

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Rahat Husain

Rahat Husain has been working as a columnist since 2013 when he joined the Communities. With an interest in America and Islam, Rahat is a prolific writer on contemporary and international issues.


In addition to writing for the Communities, Rahat Husain is an Attorney based in the Washington DC Metropolitan area. He is the Director of Legal and Policy Affairs at UMAA Advocacy. For the past six years, Mr. Husain has worked with Congressmen, Senators, federal agencies, think tanks, NGOs, policy institutes, and academic experts to advocate on behalf of Shia Muslim issues, both political and humanitarian. UMAA hosts one of the largest gatherings of Shia Ithna Asheri Muslims in North America at its annual convention.


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