Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the “Protect Cemeteries Act” which amended the International Religious Freedom Act to include cemetery desecration as a violation of religious freedom. The full text of the bill, as signed into law by Obama, is here.
The Islamic Republic of Iran—a country which President Obama increasingly treats as a diplomatic partner—now presents the first challenge to the new law. From the U.S. Baha’i Office of Public Affairs:
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has resumed its destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the city of Shiraz, while a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by the President earlier this month – known as the “Protect Cemeteries Act” – makes this type of cemetery desecration a sanctionable religious freedom violation. The Guard began excavating the site in April 2014, but temporarily suspended its activity following an international outcry. The cemetery is the site of 950 Baha’i graves, including those of 10 Baha’i women who were hanged in 1983, the youngest of whom was 17 years old. In June, the Guard held a public celebration of its progress in clearing the site, which it plans to turn into a cultural and sports complex. Reports from Iran indicate that the Guard has now removed human remains from some 30 of the 50 graves in the cemetery and placed them into an open canal.
In my recent study of engaging rogue regimes, one of the clear costs of such diplomacy—in almost every single example—is augmented abuse of religious freedom by the targets of America’s diplomacy. Rogues know that once the White House or State Department starts a process, it is loath to criticize rogue regimes for fear that they will walk away from the negotiating table. American outreach is akin to a free pass on accountability for any domestic repression.
The Obama presidency has been marked by disdain for the checks and balances inherent in the American system. Obama may be frustrated that he cannot achieve his agenda in the face of a recalcitrant Congress or dubious court; in this he would be joined by his 43 predecessors. But while the president may feel the end justifies the means as he bypasses laws that he did not support or sign, the “Protect Cemeteries Act” is a law which the president supported and which he signed just two weeks ago. Laws should be more than simply about a photo-op at a signing ceremony; it’s time for the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to stand up and sanction Iran for its clear and blatant violation of the amended International Religious Freedom Act, and for Congress to demand the president uphold the law he signed, and use its power of the purse both to make its displeasure felt and simultaneously to stand up for religious liberty.