Stalled Bill to Combat Middle East Violence Sparks Intra-Party Fight

Republicans hold bill that would protect religious minorities

Syrian and Iraqi Christians
Syrian and Iraqi Christians / AP
May 23, 2014

Republican Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) have for months been the only two lawmakers standing in the way of the legislation to establish a U.S. State Department envoy tasked with defending religious minorities in Middle East hotspots such as Egypt, Iran, and Syria.

Lee and Coburn originally placed a hold on the bill in February and continue, months later, to stand in its way, despite widespread majority support from other Democrats and Republicans.

The battle over a long-stalled, yet widely supported congressional effort to combat the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East has pitted leading Republicans against one another and stirred outrage from advocacy groups who are frustrated that lawmakers are foiling efforts that could help stem the bloodshed.

As the legislation languishes in procedural limbo, advocacy groups and their congressional partners have begun to go on the offensive, accusing Lee and Coburn of dithering as Christian minorities are killed in record breaking numbers.

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.

It then moved to the Senate, where Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) sought to expedite its passage. However, that effort was shot down by Lee and Coburn.

Asked to address the controversy earlier this week, Lee said he remains concerned over the envoy position’s cost and the duplicative nature of the post.

"A lot of it relates to the fact that we have a similar position already, a religious envoy at large for religious liberties," Lee said, referring to a similar envoy position that has been left vacant for years by the Obama administration.

"Why not put pressure on the administration to fill the spot that’s already been created," Lee asked. "One of my concerns is, why are we creating a new position, giving them that much more authority to fill more office space, when they already got the power to do this and are not doing it?"

While the bill explicitly states that the position would be temporary and paid for by existing funds, Lee said this is not enough.

"There’s nothing more permanent that a temporary government program and, again, it’s one of the things I want to see in the bill, some assurance that if this really is temporary, and if it really is not going to cost us anything, I want to see that made more explicit in the bill than it already is," he said.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), the original author and sponsor of the legislation, said that Lee’s concerns have already been addressed.

"They’re moving the goal posts," Wolf said. "I don’t know what Lee is doing. I don’t know how to respond to Lee. I’m so disappointed in him. If I ever lived in Utah I wouldn’t vote for Lee. I’m serious! Look at what he’s doing!"

"Frankly, the bill may not pass," Wolf admitted. "But if it doesn’t it will be on Lee’s conscience, not anybody else."

Advocacy groups such as CUFI are similarly frustrated and confused by the ongoing hold, which has effectively prevented the bill from ever coming to an up or down vote on the Senate floor.

"We appreciate Sen. Lee and understand his concerns. But he's been holding this bill for months already without any apparent sense of urgency," said David Brog, CUFI’s executive director. "This envoy bill is a minimal step towards ending the silence surrounding an ongoing tragedy. Let's stop the dithering and pass it already."

Lee said that while he sympathizes with those seeking to stem violence in the Middle East, he has doubts the envoy bill will effectively address the situation.

"The [Obama] administration has to make it a priority and, look, this is why we have embassies all over the world," he said. "One could argue, and I’m not necessarily arguing this, that this is a redundancy."

"We’ve got embassies all over the world. We’ve got ambassadors, diplomats, attaches representing this and that interest all over the world," he said. "Arguably, all of them have the charge to look into issues that offend American ideals, including any issue of oppression against religious minorities."

"If this administration isn’t willing to make this a priority now, I doubt very much the creation of yet another position, yet another position to double up on a position that’s already been created and hasn’t been used, what that’s going to do?" Lee asked.

Wolf charged that Lee is "missing the whole thing."

The religious envoy, Wolf said, would focus "like a laser beam" on the persecution of religious minorities by rogue state actors in Iran, Syria, and Egypt, where Christians have been disproportionately targeted by the Muslim majorities.

"By the time Sen. Lee leaves the Senate or dies there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq or Syria," Wolf said. "And there aren’t going to be very many left in Iran."

Blunt also expressed frustration with the last of action on the issue.

"These continued human rights abuses are outrageous and they deserve immediate attention," Blunt said. "Yet, nobody in our government appears to want to say or do anything about it. Somebody needs to be in charge at the White House, somebody needs to take responsibility."

Violence against religious minorities in the Middle East has surged in recent months as the envoy bill has sat on the Senate’s shelf.

"Just last week we saw reports of Christians being attacked by Muslims near Bethlehem, a pregnant Sudanese Christian woman being sentenced to death for ‘apostasy,’ and Christians being tortured in Iranian prisons," said one conservative Christian activist who asked to remain anonymous. "How many Christians have to be tortured and murdered before Sens. Lee and Coburn will hear their cries and join the other 98 senators who support this bill?"

Coburn's office did not respond to comment.
Senate sources say Lee supports the House version of the bill and would release his hold if that version were offered in the Senate.