The Biden administration is crafting important proposals for aid to Israel and to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Conspicuously missing from the billions in funding for these efforts is the cause of international religious freedom for the people there.
Joe Biden's memory is notoriously fallible, so the president may need a reminder that this month is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which he voted for as a senator, and which makes support for those persecuted for their religious beliefs and the promotion of religious freedom a foreign policy priority of the United States. Thus far, though, the administration acts as if the response to the barbaric attacks on Israelis can ignore religious tensions or the experts who best know how to promote peace and direct aid.
The IRFA passed with widespread bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Clinton on October 27, 1998. Its scope was admirably ambitious in forming the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom(USCIRF), as well as the posts of ambassador at large for international religious freedom in the State Department and a special adviser on religious freedom within the National Security Council. Amendments to the IRFA were then passed during Joe Biden’s tenure as vice president to “improve the ability of the United States to advance religious freedom globally…through stronger and more flexible political responses to religious freedom violations and violent extremism worldwide.”
During the Trump administration, the leadership of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback guaranteed that religious freedom informed how the United States addressed the brutal assault on the Yazidi and Christians in the Middle East, advocated for the Rohingya in Myanmar, and denounced China’s treatment of the Uyghur people. His insight was welcomed at the White House and by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and helped ensure aid went to churches and other people on the ground who were in the best position to direct it effectively and support the religious freedom of those needing help.
Rashad Hussain is President Biden’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom. and the first Muslim American to hold the position. He traveled to Israel and the West Bank this spring where he built relationships with government and civil society leaders as well as representatives of faith communities during the convergence of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter. He and Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr held talks with senior Israeli government officials regarding the right to freedom of religion and belief for all. They also met the director general of the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib. In addition, they spoke to representatives of all three Abrahamic faiths to hear their perspectives on the current climate in Jerusalem, Israel, and the West Bank.
Yet Rashad Hussain did not join President Biden last week during the president’s trip to Israel. Neither did any representatives of the USCIRF. That was a colossal – and frankly inexplicable – missed opportunity by the administration.
The expertise of those on the USCIRF has informed their comments after the terrorist attack on Israelis by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on October 7, when it urged the United States to “lead international efforts to thoroughly condemn this abhorrent intolerance, including calling out Iran and other governments that stoke the flames of religious incitement.” In the words of Commissioner Mohamed Magid, “invoking any religion, including Islam, to justify taking innocent lives has no place in any society.” He added that “claims that violent terrorists represent the whole of Islam – or the Palestinian people seeking their fundamental human rights – are ill-founded.”
USCIRF has also condemned “religious incitement related to the emerging conflict between Israel and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.” Vice Chair Fredrick Davie, a Christian, warned that “at a time of rising religious intolerance, the US government should respond decisively to those invoking religion to justify killings, kidnappings, torture and all other human rights violations against people intending to live peacefully in the Holy Land and throughout the world.” He explained that “tolerating restrictions on religious freedom, including harassment of religious communities and restricted access to houses of worship, contravenes the protections guaranteed to all people under international law.”These observations are supremely relevant to the horrendous crisis unfolding in the Near East. Yet, despite the expertise available to him, the president seems oblivious to such good counsel.
Meanwhile, as Americans, we can at least begin to make amends for our government’s indifference toward seemingly ineradicable religious hatreds. I joined a group of Catholics in signing the Philos Statement, an explicit and heartfelt declaration of moral support for the Jewish people, who have just endured their worst ordeal since the Holocaust. “We reject hatred, bigotry, and racism in all their forms. As Catholics and Christians, we believe that antisemitism is a spiritual evil,” explains the statement. It also adds “We affirm the right of the Jewish people to live safely and securely in their ancestral homeland, and recognize that modern Israel is essential to that security. These rights should not jeopardize the right of Palestinians to also live in safety and security.”
Twenty-five years ago, our country’s elected officials in Congress – from both political parties – as well as those in top positions at the White House understood that religious freedom had to be enshrined in our foreign policy. President Biden is now facing unprecedented conflict in the Near East. Thanks to the IRFA, he has at his disposal a cadre of qualified experts to inform his response. Yet, there is no evidence that he is listening to them. It's not clear how much information the president is capable of taking in these days. But in today's world, we cannot afford the consequences of excluding the subject of religion from our foreign policy.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the Director of the Conscience Project.