Those Who Are Champions

Any member of Congress’ door should be open to the values and views of religious liberty. I get excited about religious freedom. We should be able to stand on the guard of human rights and religious liberty all day long, every day of the year, to prevent people from losing their lives: from losing their rights to practice and praying, or not pray, as they desire.

There are people in the Congress who are hungry to be able to work on these issues. We’ve gotten almost a third of new members, and I would venture to say they are ready and waiting to be of service.

I want to celebrate all the champions of conscience that are here today. I do want to say that we have diversify in this Congress: we have two Muslim women who are now serving in the United States House of Representatives, and one Muslim man; certainly Catholics and Baptists and others. We now have two Seventh-day Adventists, to my knowledge: myself and Dr. [Raul] Ruiz from California, a wonderful doctor who is a now a member of the United States Congress; who pulled himself up to go to medical school, became an emergency room doctor, and has done some amazing things in health care. He has gone back to his community and been a servant leader. It is important to reach out and to develop presence among those who are not of the faith that is in this room—of the particular faith of many in this room. We must continue to emphasize the importance of religious freedom, domestically and internationally, and we must be human rights advocates.

And so, what have I done in this instance? I am also a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission: we are periodically dealing with questions of human rights around the world, and that includes religious liberty. And in my work I have called for the release of all religious prisoners in Iran, and for U.S. officials to speak out publicly about the deteriorating condition of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief in Iran. I believe that we should not go to war with Iran, but I do believe we should engage with Iran. And I guess I believe in the power of faith and the power of God. I frankly believe that we the people of faith will win over Iran, because in Iran there are people who are fighting for religious liberty, fighting for democracy, fighting for a new Iran. I believe they are going to prevail. All we need to do is continue to encourage them, and Iranian Americans say that all the time. And I interact with them. They do not want war, but they want to see their relatives, and they want peace. And we continue to fight for that. I call on the United Nations Human Rights Council to monitor and demand compliance for the recommendations of representatives of those special mechanisms that have already visited Iran. I support the continued designation of Iran as a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

I will not go so far as to call their military personnel terrorist, as much as we may disagree. That only provokes, but I do believe that we should express our concern about the lack of religious freedom and should ensure that we give funding to promote democracy and human rights in Iran. Part of my legislation calls on the government of Iran to release our prisoners, held because of their religious or political beliefs, and to respect the human rights of all citizens. And we also know that just as culpably as sectarian governments, purportedly secular governments can be responsible for these types of laws, which is why I sponsored legislation that calls on the president and the Department of State to make the repeal of blasphemy, heresy, or apostasy laws a priority in bilateral relationships with the United States. I believe that whenever we are having diplomatic relations, religious liberty should be on the table, and we should not walk away from discussions without ensuring that our voices are heard, particularly on blasphemy laws.And so I’ve encouraged our government to engage in religious liberty discussions whenever we’re doing diplomatic meetings. I urge the governments of countries that enforce such laws to amend or repeal them and to release those who’ve been prosecuted or imprisoned or persecuted. I also encourage the president and the State Department to oppose any efforts to further this kind of dastardly work, and would encourage the United Nations to work to combat intolerance, discrimination, or violence against persons on the basis of religion and their belief. Human trafficking can sometimes be at the core of the disrespect for religious beliefs, because those who are trafficked are the most vulnerable in communities. If you are of a particular religion or a particular ethnicity in a particular country, you are vulnerable!

I believe in the United States Congress: that the promotion, protection, and advancement of democracy and human rights and the rule of law around the world have been core, bipartisan components essential to the achievement of other United States foreign policy goals. Those goals include reducing poverty, promoting peaceful resolution of conflict, strengthening global alliances, ensuring gender equality, expanding prosperity, fostering greater security for all people, and maintaining religious freedom and sustaining the global environment. These are, of course, principles that I would hope all of us could adhere to.

I remember going to Nigeria and talking to the families that have been victimized by Boko Haram. Many of you remember the 256 [Ed: 276] Chibok girls, I believe that was the number, that were abducted. We have year after year worn red on Wednesdays in order to support bringing all the girls back. I talked with some of the people who had been victimized, who had watched their husbands being killed in front of them, who watched churches being burned and pastors being killed right in front of them; who knew the girls who had been taken. Some of those girls who were either persuaded or forced to adopt another religion: some become impregnated by the rebels, and others have never been found again. This is the dastardliness of those actions, of those who have no respect for religion or believe their religion is superior to anyone else’s.

And so, how crucial the work that is being done by this concept of religious freedom. Liberty magazine is certainly a vital organ of truth.The work that is being done by those in this room is crucial. Religious freedom is alive and well, but the attack on religious liberty is likewise alive and well. And it is important that we link arms together, Democrats, Republicans, independents, and otherwise: to be able to propose and promote the idea that our faith is stronger than those who would attempt to undermine it and to destroy it.

How tragic it is that whole families can lose their lives because of their religious beliefs. So many of us know the stories of missionaries and others who were willing to lose their lives rather than be subordinated to a government’s wish for them to deny their religion or cease ministering to others. And even in the United States, as we seek to ensure that religious liberty is protected, we must stand together and educate those who may find freedom for others an aversion to their own beliefs.

It is always good to link arms in this kind of fight. And I came here tonight to ensure that you knew that this fight is not a stranger to Democrats; it’s not a stranger to Republicans; it’s not a stranger to the House of Representatives, or a stranger to the United States Senate. What we are here to say is please come see us because our door is open—and realize that unless we continue to fight, religious liberty will have no one to hold her up. I believe that there are people around the world that are depending on those of us who have the ability to continue to push forward in our government, in the United Nations and in our international organizations to stop the bullying of those who believe in religious freedom.

Every year, the Falun Gong comes to the hill. In China, not only are they suffering, but Muslims and Christians are suffering as well. Many are incarcerated and persecuted. And they come every year to talk about those in China who are not able to practice their faith. And some would say, “You come every year, yet there are no changes.” But they come every year because they have faith. They come to the United States capitol and they’re on the front lawn of the United States Capitol. And one after another, members of Congress come to pledge their support. And at some point, in the history of this time, before the world comes to an end, I believe that they will have victory: because year, after year, after year, they continue to press the envelope on their faith. They come to this place that they believe is a bastion of freedom of”justice and equality, a refuge, a water spring, to say, “Help us,” and if not, “Help us, see our story. We will not let you forget.”

And those who are champions of religious liberty, we must have that same passion of year after year after year continuing to press our point. We must be wellsprings for those who walk in the footsteps of despair and devastation, that they can find refuge and know full well that somewhere there’s a light. And as has been said by President Reagan, the Shining City on the hill, America, is that to the world, and we must never let that light go out. Religious liberty must always have defenders; and they should be those in this room and those beyond. Thank you all so very much. God bless each and every one of you, and God bless the United States of America.

Article Author: ​Sheila Jackson Lee

Sheila Jackson Lee (D) represents the 18th Congressional District of Texas, centered in Houston. She sits on the House Judiciary Committee, the Homeland Security Committee, and the Budget Committee. She is a longtime advocate for religious freedom, having introduced a resolution decrying religious freedom in Iran, cosponsored a resolution calling for the global repeal of blasphemy, heresy, and apostacy laws, and led a congressional delegation to Nigeria, examining religious terrorism there.