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Two leading Republican senators are under fire from religious groups for blocking a widely supported bill that would help combat the slaughter of Christian minorities across the Middle East, according to multiple sources familiar with the legislation.
Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) are said to be the only two lawmakers standing in the way of the legislation, which would establish a U.S. State Department envoy tasked with defending religious minorities in Middle East hotspots such as Egypt, Iran, and Syria.
The envoy bill has long been working its way through Congress, where it stalled several times in the House before winning near unanimous support last year following a lobbying campaign by Christian groups.
Now it is facing hurdles in the Senate, where just two senators—Coburn and Lee—have placed a hold on the bill, prompting outrage from supporters who say that Christian minorities are being slaughtered as Congress dithers.
The envoy bill, known officially as The Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2013, passed the House in September by a vote of 402-22 after a lobbying bid led by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and other religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Coptic Solidarity, the North American Religious Liberty Association, and a handful of other advocacy groups.
The bill then moved to the Senate, where Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) attempted to expedite its passage through a process known as unanimous consent. While this route can help a popular piece of legislation find quicker approval, it also permits any senator to issue a hold, effectively stopping the bill in its tracks.
Both Coburn and Lee did just that in recent days. The bill cannot proceed until these indefinite holds are lifted.
When asked by the Washington Free Beacon to explain their holds, Lee and Coburn said that they have lingering concerns about the legislation.
“A hold is just a way to signal that a senator has questions about the bill’s impact and would like to have them answered before the bill proceeds,” said Brian Phillips, Lee's communications director. “The offices are working together to provide information about any concerns.”
Coburn’s office told the Free Beacon that the senator is “holding the bill because it duplicates an existing position,” the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Sources working on the legislation said that both Lee and Coburn are worried that the bill would cost too much money and create another useless bureaucratic office in the State Department.
However, CUFI disagrees. It argues that the United States should be doing all it can to fight back against Christian persecution.
“The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our day,” David Brog, CUFI executive director, said. “This bill won't stop the bloodshed, but it will shine a bright light on it. And it will be paid for entirely from funds already appropriated to the State Department.”
Brog said that libertarian arguments against big government are nonsense in this case.
“Blocking this bill isn't a stand against big government; it is the refusal to stand by our brothers’ blood,” he said. “We will have some very difficult questions for whoever blocks this effort.”
Brog also pushed back against Coburn’s stance that the bill duplicates an already existing position.
“The fact that there already exists an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—with a broad global focus—hardly makes this bill irrelevant,” he said. “Sen. Coburn's assertion to the contrary only proves our point: this tragedy gets so little attention that even a senior U.S. senator thinks we're already doing enough.”
“It's a big world and this is an urgent problem,” Brog added. “Given the extraordinary circumstances, I would hope that everyone in Washington recognizes the need for an envoy whose sole focus is to put the full diplomatic weight of the U.S. government behind the effort to stop this tragedy.”
Blunt, who remains one of the bill’s chief proponents, said he is working to convince his colleagues to back the bill.
“The continued violence we’ve witnessed against Coptic Christians and other civilians in the Middle East warrants a clear and immediate response from the United States,” Blunt said. “We must continue to aggressively defend religious freedom throughout the world, and I urge my colleagues to allow a vote on this bipartisan legislation immediately.”
As Congress debates the legislation, Christians in the Middle East continue to find themselves under attack.
Several nuns who were kidnapped by jihadists in Syria were featured in a ransom video over the weekend begging for their freedom.
Christians in Egypt continue to face beatings and harassment by hardline Islamists still upset at the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood.