Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey has been honored with an award for his policy work in helping persecuted religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.
The advocacy organization In Defense of Christians presented the 2017 Cedars of God Award during its annual Solidarity Dinner Oct. 25 in Washington, which was attended by 500 to 600 religious leaders from the United States and the Middle East, members of Congress, and human rights advocates from around the country. Vice President Mike Pence was a keynote speaker at the event.
“The exponential increase in the number of persecuted Christians worldwide today begs a far more robust, effective and sustained response,” Smith stated at the dinner. “We are at a tipping point.”
Smith, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was honored by IDC for his leadership in passing legislation that aids Middle Eastern religious and ethnic minorities.
Smith was the author of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), signed into law in December 2016. It made significant upgrades to the landmark International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Smith’s bill significantly bolstered the State Department’s ability to advocate for the protection of persecuted religious minorities and to promote religious freedom abroad.
It created a list of prisoners from around the world detained for their religious beliefs, required religious freedom training for all U.S. foreign service officers, and gave the ambassador at-large for International Religious Freedom greater access to the secretary of state. The law was supported by an ecumenical coalition of religious groups including and representatives of ethnic minority groups and NGOs.
Smith sponsored H.R. 390 (Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act). The House passed it unanimously in June, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed it unanimously on Sept. 19. The Senate has taken no further action.
Last December, Smith led a delegation to Erbil – home to 70,000 Christians displaced by ISIS – in the Kurdistan region of Iraq at the invitation of the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda.
At the camp in Erbil, the delegation met with genocide survivors, religious leaders, aid workers from the archdiocese, officials from the United States, other governments and the United Nations, as well as non-governmental organizations.
“We saw impoverished Christians rich in faith,” Smith said of his trip. “We also sat with Christians and heard stories of ISIS atrocities, the desecration of churches, the murder of young men who refused to renounce Jesus Christ, and sexual assault of women and girls.”
Smith noted that on the trip, “we heard people declare their love for God despite it all – of resilient Christians radiating hope, faith and charity in the direst circumstances.”
In addition to serving as the chairman of the subcommittee on global human rights, Smith is the chairman of the Helsinki Commission and co-chair of the China Commission, both of which focus on the promotion of international human rights as central to U.S. foreign policy. He has visited more than 50 countries to advance human rights, speaking out against religious persecution and other human rights abuses like human trafficking and torture occurring in these countries.