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Establishing Special Envoy for Religious Freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


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

I rise to urge my colleagues to support H.R. 440, a bill to establish a Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.

The bill is authored by my very good friend and colleague, Congressman Frank Wolf, who was also the author of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 and other religious freedom legislation. He has taken the lead in Congress time and time again to advance the cause of those who are persecuted because of their faith. I wish to thank him for his years of service on this issue--his legislation and his tireless advocacy on behalf of religious freedom.

Mr. Speaker, this bill establishes the special envoy position for religious minorities in 31 Middle Eastern and South Central Asian countries, almost all of which have had bad or very bad records of persecuting or disadvantaging religious minorities. The special envoy will represent the United States in contacts with foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations, U.N. agencies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and in contacts with international organizations and multilateral conferences. He or she will also meet with victims and try to take their story to offending governments to try to end the abuse.

We know from experience, Mr. Speaker, that special envoys, including and especially for Sudan and Northern Ireland, have achieved unparalleled successes over the years in mitigating explosive situations and literally saving lives all while pursuing positive and durable solutions to what appear to be intractable and unresolvable problems.

But not all special envoys have been equally effective. Almost everything depends on whom the President appoints to the position. So I would appeal to the President: When this bill becomes law, appoint someone with the passion, energy, and experience to get this job done and to stand up as never before for these persecuted minorities.

Mr. Speaker, many of my colleagues will speak about different religious minorities in the Middle East, but I am particularly concerned about the Coptic minority in Egypt. They have been called the bellwether of the rights for religious minorities in the Middle East. As the largest and one of the oldest minorities, they are suffering, and their escalating agony portends suffering throughout the region.

And make no mistake, they are suffering. On Friday of last week, I chaired a hearing specifically to hear of the needs and experiences of the Copts during this time during transition. What I heard and what my colleagues heard on the Helsinki Commission worried us deeply. Coptic women and girls, some as young as 14, are being systematically lured from their families or kidnapped off the street corners and forced to change their religion and forced to marry outside of their community. These young girls frequently suffer physical and psychological abuse, including rape, beatings, forced isolation, and lack of personal freedom both before and after their so-called "marriage/conversion.'' The drugging of victims appears to be commonplace.

One story that emerged at the hearing detailed the situation of a married woman who was forced to leave her Coptic community and marry a Muslim. Her family was present at the official inquiry--which are no longer conducted, I might point out--and said that she showed signs of being drugged. She was out of it. Over and over she repeated, "I had to do it for the children. I had to do it for the children.''

Dr. Michele Clark, an internationally recognized anti-trafficking expert--she was one of those who led the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins and was director of the OSCE trafficking efforts for years--she authored a report called "The Disappearance, Forced Conversions, and Forced Marriages of Coptic Christian Women in Egypt.'' She testified that this happens to thousands of Coptic women and girls each and every year. She said this on Friday. Others also concurred in that analysis.

Dr. Clark further testified that the mounting evidence shows that the term ``alleged''--which has been used in the U.S. State Department Reports on Human Rights Practices, as well as in the TIP report--needs to be replaced. It's no longer even close to being accurate. It's not an allegation; it's a fact that she herself, as a human rights investigator, has helped to establish by doing extensive investigation and inquiries on the ground in Egypt.

She pointed out that the criminality of alleged forced marriages and conversions is generally dismissed by authorities here and everywhere else, especially in Egypt. The coverup must end. Young women are presumed to be willing participants, they are not. The abduction and the disappearance of Coptic women and girls follow, as she puts it, consistent patterns and constitutes human trafficking--modern day slavery.

Dr. Clark testified that men and women and peers are used to build trust and dispel resistance in young women targeted for conversion in marriage. Most cases documented in the report begin with a trusting relationship that ultimately leads to the disappearance or abduction, marriage to a Muslim man, and conversion to Islam. These supposed new friends exploit the vulnerability and naivete of a young Coptic woman.

Once trust has been established, girls are lured to an isolated place, drugged and kidnapped. Often they are raped. Following the rape, the Coptic women experience shame and fear of how their families will respond. They become more willing to stay with the Muslim friends. They feel that they have been so abused. And then they often marry their rapist because they feel they have nowhere else to go. This outrageous abuse must be exposed and stopped--and these young women rescued.

Let me just point out to my colleagues, what is going on in Egypt and the abuses being experienced by Christians and people of the Baha'i faith in Iran and elsewhere, we need to do much more than we have done to combat this, to speak out, to do effective chronicling, but also, once you get the information, to ensure that it is actionable and that you take it to those governments. Sadly, we have not done that. A special envoy would be uniquely equipped and empowered to take the cause of the beleaguered, suffering religious minorities in the Middle East and to fight, and to fight every day of the week for those people.

I reserve the balance of my time.


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

Mr. Speaker, the issue of religious freedom for minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia must be of the highest priority. For far too long, religious minorities and the persecution and marginalization they endure has been overlooked, even trivialized. Their rights and even their very lives must now be assiduously protected in this time of political upheaval, especially in the Middle East.

Mr. Wolf had the foresight to draft this bill before the so-called Arab Spring. It was needed in January. It's even more needed now, especially in light of the spate of church bombings and escalated persecution against believers, especially with kidnappings of thousands each and every year of Coptic Christian teenage girls, who are then forced to convert to Islam and forced to "marry'' a Muslim man.

Make no mistake, Mr. Speaker. The Middle East is at a critical juncture. We are witnessing the systematic extinction of centuries-old religious communities. South and Central Asia are also systematically failing their religious minorities.

The late Shahbaz Bhatti, Federal Minister for Minorities in Pakistan, gave his life to fight the injustices and atrocities suffered by the religious minorities in Pakistan. The Government of Pakistan has since abolished the Ministry for Minorities, perhaps under the false impression that it does not matter in relations with the United States.

A Special Envoy for religious minorities sends the right message at the right time, and empowers a diplomat with access to the President and to, hopefully, all the leaders throughout the region and to all those who are disenfranchised. The rights of religious minorities matter, and we will not look askance during this perilous time.


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