In ‘restoring America’s soul,’ Biden can become a hero for the persecuted
President Biden campaigned on a promise that his top priority would be to “restore the soul of America.” He emphasized that he would focus on healing America’s partisan divides and seek to reinvigorate bipartisanship in Washington. One way the president can heal the nation and bring Democrats and Republicans together is by championing the cause of international religious freedom.
When the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) was passed, then-Sen. Biden was the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As president, he should quickly act to make appointments for leadership positions established by the IRFA, such as an ambassador at large for international religious freedom and commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he and President Biden believe in the traditional role of Congress as a partner in policymaking. Some of the greatest accomplishments in international religious freedom policy have come from bipartisan congressional collaboration.
In December, the Senate passed a resolution urging the government of Lebanon to adopt political reforms and charging the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with providing the Lebanese people humanitarian assistance following the tragic Aug. 4 Port of Beirut explosion. Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern democracy built and sustained by Christian and Muslim cooperation. President Biden must prioritize U.S.-Lebanon policy, including addressing the threat that Iran’s proxy Hezbollah poses to Lebanon’s stability every day.
Last Congress, Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.) introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on Egypt to give Coptic Christians equal rights. Former USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa traveled to Minya Province, where most of the persecution against Copts takes place. President Biden should direct incoming USAID Administrator Samantha Power, a powerful human rights advocate in her own right, to build on this level of commitment.
In 2019, Congress made history by recognizing the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against its Christian population of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans and Maronites. President Biden has pledged to recognize this genocide. When Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, President Biden was quick to condemn the decision. President Biden also rightfully spoke out after an attack on a Western Asia Christian community dating to the first century A.D. Now is the time for the president to translate these campaign statements into policy.
Former Vice President Mike Pence made history at the 2017 In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner by announcing policy to directly support Christian and Yazidi survivors of the ISIS genocide. A Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a resolution this past December affirming support for this assistance. President Biden should increase aid to these genocide survivors.
Christians and Yazidis face similar challenges in northern Syria, where Turkey routinely violates the U.S.-brokered ceasefire and supports terrorist militias. The Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), which led the charge to destroy ISIS, has built a society with ethnic and religious equality, much to Turkey’s dismay. The U.S. must recognize and support the pro-democracy mission of AANES. Furthermore, President Biden must exempt AANES from executive sanctions intended to target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
President Biden’s decision to pause arm sales to Saudi Arabia reflects his campaign pledge to reassess the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Given that Saudi Arabia is one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world, President Biden should direct Secretary Blinken to impose direct sanctions against them as prescribed in the 1998 IRFA.
There are two initiatives of former President Trump’s foreign policy that were historic, which President Biden should continue. The first was Trump’s executive order on international religious freedom and the second was the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Both of these initiatives significantly improved the responsiveness of the U.S. government to religious freedom violations across the globe. President Biden should integrate them into his foreign policy agenda.
At the same time, President Biden should identify the Trump administration’s shortcomings on this issue and seek to correct them. In particular, he should take a stronger stance on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Restoring the soul of America is no simple task. Not only does the promotion of international religious freedom integrate perfectly into President Biden’s stated priorities of championing democracy and human rights, it sends a message to people across the world that the U.S. will fight for the right of everyone to openly profess their faith.
Toufic Baaklini is president of In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization advocating for the human rights of Christians in Africa and the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @TbaakliniToufic.