Earlier this year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its 15th annual report on the status of religious freedom around the world. USCIRF's report reaffirms what we've known for years: the plight of religious minorities around the world is troubling, and in many places -- like the Middle East -- it is getting worse. A few weeks ago I held a congressional hearing to examine the situation of human rights in Iran to highlight the plight of religious minorities there despite the false promises of moderation by Hassan Rouhani.
The fact is that throughout the Middle East and particularly in Iran, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, there is widespread persecution of religious minorities and especially Christians. If we want to see a stable and secure Middle East, we must first ensure that the fundamental human rights of all people are being respected, and that includes the right to profess and practice one's faith freely and openly without fear of persecution. If democracy is ever going to take hold in the region, then the rights of minority communities must be respected. Recent years have proven that elections alone do not make a democracy. But it is also true that without respect for human rights, you cannot have a democracy.
I have, as part of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission's Defending Freedoms project, chosen to "adopt" Rozita Vaseghi -- an Iranian prisoner of conscience - to help call attention to not just her plight, but that of all religious minorities in Iran. Rozita is a member of Iran's Baha'i community who has been unjustly imprisoned by the regime for her religious beliefs. Rozita has been placed in solitary confinement for at least six months, and is denied access to the medical treatment she desperately needs. As the Administration continues to negotiate with Iran, this is the perfect time to be holding the regime's feet to the fire, and make Iran's human rights record and Iran's support for and backing of terrorism part of these negotiations.
The situation is dire in Syria, where more than 1,000 Christians were killed in 2013 and public crucifixions are being carried out, according to reports. The danger for Christians and moderate minorities grows as rebels become even more radicalized, as demonstrated by the killing of the beloved Father Frans, a Dutch priest who gave refuge to Christians and Muslims in his monastery.
Our State Department should demonstrate that it takes this issue seriously by designating offending countries, such as Iraq and Syria, as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). It's alarming that they have not added any countries to the CPC list, despite USCIRF continually recommending that it does so, for nearly a decade now.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, President Obama said that promoting religious freedom is a key U.S. foreign policy objective and that he looked forward to nominating an Ambassador at Large for religious freedom, which he has yet to do. It is time that the President back up these words with action, and defend this most basic of human rights.
Member of Congress