When the gavel rings in the 114th Congress on Tuesday, a human-rights hero will be missing from the ranks of the lawmakers gathered on the floor.
Not that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) would characterize himself as anything other than a man who simply did his job for 17 terms in the House.
And not that Wolf is giving up his championing of religious and other human rights just because he’s retired from office.
Wolf, 75, has never been one to shy away from causes that hadn’t yet caught on across Capitol Hill, warning years before ISIS cleansed the Christians from Mosul that the ancient community was a breath away from being eradicated. As one source characterized the congressman, “He brings an AK to a knife fight.”
After the House left town in December, Wolf told PJM that he really became interested in human rights, and the president’s mantra of the Constitution being a covenant with the world, during the middle of the Reagan administration. He began serving in Congress in 1981.
“I think we’re seeing the covenant that Reagan talks about being broken,” Wolf somberly noted.
It’s not just the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East and the destruction of biblical history in Iraq and Syria. It’s the Catholic bishops under house arrest in China, the Coptic Christians being “squeezed” out of Egypt, the persecution of the Bahai minority in Iran. More Chinese dissidents came through Wolf’s office than any other office on the Hill, said the congressman who snuck into Tibet in 1997 posing as a tourist and declared upon his return that “China is squeezing the life out of Tibet.”
Wolf has advocated for victims of the Darfur genocide, fought human trafficking, and decried the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma and the Ahmadi in Pakistan. He fought to have Vietnam designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its persecution of the faithful and pressed the administration to grant asylum to Sudanese Christian Meriam Ibrahim. “The State Department almost messed that up,” he commented on the latter, a woman who had been sentenced to death for apostasy.
The priority of human rights, however, is “really diminishing from the administration, but also from the Congress.”
“For some reason it just hasn’t resonated,” Wolf said, adding that “nobody ever says anything about” political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo. “Have you seen the administration say anything on Hong Kong?”
Referencing the Americans held by Iran, Wolf noted Secretary of State John Kerry’s failure to even meet with the wife of Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, a prisoner since 2012. “President Obama won’t; he’ll meet with basketball stars, he’ll meet with Beyonce,” the congressman said.
“This administration hasn’t done anything on human rights. The Vietnamese know we don’t care about human rights. Same with China. All they care about is trade. All we care about is trade.”
It’s not just this administration. Wolf, along with another longtime human-rights champion in Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), opposed President George W. Bush’s trip to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games.
“How do you go to China to see the Olympics when you have priests being tortured?” Wolf said.
Wolf’s legislative work in the 113th Congress included the establishment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia, a bill signed by President Obama in August.
They’re still waiting for Obama to appoint someone to the post.
One of the reasons he left Congress, Wolf said, is to work even more intensely on human rights. He expects to formally announce a new effort soon.
“If all people of faith could make the issue of religious freedom and human rights one of the major issues in the 2016 elections, no person could run without articulating their vision,” Wolf said. “It used to be that way” in the eras of Carter and Reagan, he added, as “you have to know what you’re prepared to do to advocate.”
“If they’re not after you today, they’re going to be after you tomorrow. Dictatorial governments are afraid of people of faith.”
Wolf said one of the problems is how international crises become a flash in the pan in Washington. “It was fashionable to be interested in Boko Haram six months months ago; it’s not now,” he said, in reference to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. “Nobody’s talking about what’s taking place with Boko Haram, nobody’s talking about Al-Shabaab crucifixions.”
In September, Wolf introduced a broad authorization of military force against terrorist groups including Boko Haram, Ansar al-Sharia, and Al-Shabaab.
Wolf stressed that, in addition to Smith, the House has some dedicated human-rights champions, singling out Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), with whom he co-chaired the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.).
Whether a human-rights nonprofit or lawmakers on the Hill, groups advocating for religious freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of the press “really need an all for one and one for all” spirit, he said.
“There are a lot of good groups out there; if there’s one thing that’s needed, it would be better coordination and cooperation with each other,” the congressman said.
“Jesus didn’t differentiate. If it’s a Uighur in China, we all speak out. If it’s a Catholic bishop in Hong Kong, we all speak out,” added the evangelical Christian. “I don’t think you need more groups, I think you need greater coordination. When your community is persecuted, everyone comes and weighs in for you.”
And, he stressed, human rights needs to be “one of the five major issues that anyone running for president or House and Senate has to address.”
Wolf said he made good friendships in the House over his long political career, but demurred when asked if there’s an accomplishment of which he’s most proud.
“I don’t want to look back; I want to look forward,” he said. “I’m more focused on what we’re going to be doing.”
Wolf added: “It’s been a good 34 years.”