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Public Statements

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2011

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Madam Speaker, first of all, let me thank Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of our committee, and Howard Berman for their fine work in helping to bring this very important legislation to the floor today.

I want to thank especially Congressman Frank Wolf, the author of this legislation, who is also the author of the original International Religious Freedom Act that was passed back in 1998, against considerable odds, opposition from the Clinton administration, for example, opposition from a number of people on both sides of the aisle. But at the end of the day, that legislation, historic, was signed into law and was signed by President Clinton. So he came around and actually put his signature on that historic legislation.

So I again want to thank Mr. Wolf for his famous leadership. He has been a leader on human rights and on religious freedom in particular for more than 30 years. And that culminated, at least on the religious freedom side, with the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act.

Madam Speaker, religious freedom, the right to worship and practice one's faith according to the dictates of one's own conscience, is a foundational human right. Not only is it an essential element in our Constitution; it is intrinsic to the human dignity of every man and woman on this Earth and was enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights.

But it is a right denied or curtailed for millions, really billions, according to some estimates, even a majority of the people living in the world. For Copts in Egypt, for Christians, Buddhists, and Uighurs in China, Montagnards, Evangelical Christians in Central Vietnam, Jews in Baha'i in Iran, many Buddhist monks in Burma and, of course, this rising pernicious tide of anti-Semitism, not just in the Middle East but in many parts of Europe, and even in the United States, the ability to live their faith without threat of persecution is a distant and unrealized promise.

I was pleased to work with Mr. Wolf years ago, as I mentioned, on this legislation. And I actually chaired the hearings on the legislation. And again, there was considerable opposition that was turned around, and at the end of the day this legislation did become law.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was an important part of this effort. It was created as an independent body of experts to review the facts and make policy recommendations from a vantage point outside of our diplomatic corps, where bilateral and other concerns had sometimes resulted in the soft-pedaling of severe ongoing violations of religious freedom around the world.

Even today, when the quality of State Department reporting on religious issues, while it's improved, the commission continues to serve as a critical role and a sounding board and a catalyst. One indicator is the fact that the commission's list of recommended, what is called ``countries of particular concern'' for severe violations of religious freedom, remains larger than the number actually designated by the State Department. They ought to be the same, but they are not.

Just yesterday, Secretary Clinton rightfully designated the People's Republic of China, Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as countries of particular concern. But the State Department's list does not add any new countries from last year, and one of the most glaring omissions of all is Vietnam, whose policies have more than earned that badge of shame.

Secretary Clinton did not designate Egypt either, or Iraq, Nigeria, Turkmenistan and Pakistan, as recommended by the commission. So, unfortunately, their recommendations went unheeded. But it does provide an important backdrop and framework to review and to look at what it is that the State Department is doing.

We need, Madam Speaker, this commission more than ever. Already in the Congress, we have had three comprehensive hearings on religious freedom: one in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in January regarding the religious freedom of minorities in the Middle East; one in the committee that I chair, the Africa Global Health global Human Rights Committee, regarding the prioritization of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy; and one just last month in the Helsinki Commission on the particular plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt. That hearing brought to light an egregious policy that is acted out in Egypt each and every day, where young Coptic Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. I yield myself the balance of my time.

I just want to again thank Congressman Frank Wolf, Chairman Wolf, for his eloquence and for his passion for those men and women and children of faith who suffer terrible, terrible injustices around the world, including persecution.

There were two books that got me involved, in all candor, in religious freedom issues--there were two incidents in my first year in Congress in 1981--``Tortured for Christ,'' by Richard Wurmbrand, who was a great evangelical pastor who spent years being tortured by the Securitate in Romania because of his faith. He made an appeal, and he said, Do not sit idly by while men and women of any faith are being tortured and persecuted because of that faith, because it's not just the individual who suffers; the entire family suffers; and very often they're incarcerated and tortured as well.

The other was the trip to the Soviet Union with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1982, January. It was 10 days in Moscow and Leningrad, meeting Soviet Jewish refusniks who were persecuted, who were put into psychiatric prisons simply because of their faith.

A couple of years later, Mr. Wolf and I went to Perm Camp 35 in the Ural Mountains. It took years to negotiate our way in. This was in 1987. We met with persecuted Jewish refusniks and Christians and political prisoners who were there simply because of their faith. It was where Natan Sharansky had spent a number of his years incarcerated by the cruel dictatorship of the Soviet Union.

In China today, the believer Christians, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Buddhists are tortured beyond anyone's imagination. It's real. It's happening today. In Vietnam, there has been a backlash against people of faith ever since they got trading benefits and the bilateral trade agreement and MFN were extended to them, or PNTR. They have done a backlash to men and women of faith that is unprecedented, and ought to be on the CPC list of the International Religious Freedom Commission. I hope people will go to the Web site. Check out this wonderful Commission, which if it is not renewed by the end of this month, goes out of business.

I would call out our Members on the other side of this Capitol, the other body, to pass this legislation immediately. We ought to be strengthening and significantly expanding it, not doing less than status quo, which is what we're doing today because of some budget concerns that people have. This is the quintessential watchdog agency in this town. It doesn't get the big press, as Mr. Wolf said. It doesn't have the big bucks--no K Street lobbyists--but it is a wonderful and a very important and effective Commission that keeps track of religious persecution globally, that keeps us in line in the House and the Senate and also the State Department. I read their reports. I read them from cover to cover. Please, I would ask the Members of this body to support this legislation and call on our friends in the Senate to do likewise.

I yield back the balance of my time. Christians girls, some as young as 14 and 15, are kidnapped. They are forced into Islam, and then they are, at age 18 or thereafter, given in marriage forcibly to an Islamic man.

That is an outrage against women's rights, human rights, and religious freedom as well.

The Commission has been an invaluable resource to Congress as we monitor the protection and promotion of religious freedom around the world and the response of the administration on this very important issue. They have also a resource to governments seeking to remedy religious freedom abuses within their own borders. For instance, in Indonesia, the Commission worked with members of the Indonesian House of Representatives and civil society groups and introduced measures to strengthen provisions in the criminal code regarding attacks on religious gatherings and amend the law governing the building of religious venues.

The Commission also continues to help network human rights and legal advocates in Indonesia and elsewhere around the world working to defend individuals accused of blasphemy and religious minorities facing intimidation and violence from extremist groups. The Commission's work in Indonesia will have practical impact on the exercise of human rights and the preservation of peace in that country.

Other governments have looked to the Commission as a model for their own religious freedom commissions.

The bill before us today includes a number of bipartisan reforms to the Commission authorities and operations to make their work even more effective.

Again, I want to thank Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman, and thank Howard Berman for their leadership in ensuring the bill came to the floor today and for their support for the bill.

I reserve the balance of my time.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. I yield myself the balance of my time.

I just want to again thank Congressman Frank Wolf, Chairman Wolf, for his eloquence and for his passion for those men and women and children of faith who suffer terrible, terrible injustices around the world, including persecution.

There were two books that got me involved, in all candor, in religious freedom issues--there were two incidents in my first year in Congress in 1981--``Tortured for Christ,'' by Richard Wurmbrand, who was a great evangelical pastor who spent years being tortured by the Securitate in Romania because of his faith. He made an appeal, and he said, Do not sit idly by while men and women of any faith are being tortured and persecuted because of that faith, because it's not just the individual who suffers; the entire family suffers; and very often they're incarcerated and tortured as well.

The other was the trip to the Soviet Union with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1982, January. It was 10 days in Moscow and Leningrad, meeting Soviet Jewish refusniks who were persecuted, who were put into psychiatric prisons simply because of their faith.

A couple of years later, Mr. Wolf and I went to Perm Camp 35 in the Ural Mountains. It took years to negotiate our way in. This was in 1987. We met with persecuted Jewish refusniks and Christians and political prisoners who were there simply because of their faith. It was where Natan Sharansky had spent a number of his years incarcerated by the cruel dictatorship of the Soviet Union.

In China today, the believer Christians, Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Buddhists are tortured beyond anyone's imagination. It's real. It's happening today. In Vietnam, there has been a backlash against people of faith ever since they got trading benefits and the bilateral trade agreement and MFN were extended to them, or PNTR. They have done a backlash to men and women of faith that is unprecedented, and ought to be on the CPC list of the International Religious Freedom Commission. I hope people will go to the Web site. Check out this wonderful Commission, which if it is not renewed by the end of this month, goes out of business.

I would call out our Members on the other side of this Capitol, the other body, to pass this legislation immediately. We ought to be strengthening and significantly expanding it, not doing less than status quo, which is what we're doing today because of some budget concerns that people have. This is the quintessential watchdog agency in this town. It doesn't get the big press, as Mr. Wolf said. It doesn't have the big bucks--no K Street lobbyists--but it is a wonderful and a very important and effective Commission that keeps track of religious persecution globally, that keeps us in line in the House and the Senate and also the State Department. I read their reports. I read them from cover to cover. Please, I would ask the Members of this body to support this legislation and call on our friends in the Senate to do likewise.

I yield back the balance of my time.


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