President Obama Approves Expansion of International Religious Freedom Act

Hadi Mizban / Associated Press A cross is set on a church damaged by ISIS near Mosul, Iraq.
Hadi Mizban / Associated Press
A cross is set on a church damaged by ISIS near Mosul, Iraq.
IRFA modernization gives State Department new tools to protect Christians (and others) persecuted by ISIS.

President Obama has approved legislation promoted by religious freedom advocates that should strengthen the United States’ effort to combat persecution of Christians and other faith minorities.

The House of Representatives approved the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), H.R. 1150, on December 13 to complete congressional action on the proposal. That action came only three days after the Senate amended and passed an earlier House-approved version. Both the House and Senate endorsed the amended bill without opposition.

Bill supporters were optimistic that Obama would sign the measure, named in honor of Congress’ longtime top religious freedom advocate, into law. He did so on Friday.

H.R. 1150 serves as an update of the 1998 bill that established a religious freedom office in the State Department and an independent watchdog panel, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Wolf, the since-retired congressman from Virginia who championed global religious liberty, sponsored the original IRFA 18 years ago.

The new legislation is designed to improve the federal government’s effectiveness in promoting religious liberty by, among other measures:

  • Requiring the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to report directly to the secretary of State;
  • Establishing an “entities of particular concern” category—a companion to the “countries of particular concern” classification used for nearly 20 years by the State Department—for non-government actors, such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram.
  • Instituting a “designated persons list” for individuals who violate religious freedom and authorizing the president to issue sanctions against those who participate in persecution.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called the legislation “a vital step toward protecting conscience freedom for millions of the world’s most vulnerable, most oppressed people.”

“Millions, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters, have experienced the most brutal forms of persecution, and entire cultures are now on the brink of extinction,” Moore said, in written comments for Baptist Press. “This is an urgent human rights crisis, and global religious liberty is too important to become a partisan wedge issue.”

After President Obama signed the bill, Moore stated:

The passage of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act shows a strong coalition working together for the cause of international religious freedom. The bipartisan nature of this passage shows us that religious freedom does not have to be a partisan issue but is rooted in our deepest commitments as Americans, and I hope that persecuted religious minorities around the globe will see that they have not been forgotten. While the passage of this act by no means solves the religious freedom crisis around the world, it is a step in the right direction.

Paul Coleman, deputy director of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, said the bill “demonstrates that the US is serious about the importance of religious freedom both for those who are suffering and for all those who love freedom in general.”

“Those who are suffering around the world simply for holding to a certain faith shouldn’t be forgotten, and those responsible for that persecution should be made to face appropriate consequences for their acts,” Coleman said in a written statement.