It’s become an all-too familiar and devastating pattern — while much of the West looks back with fondness to lavish Christmas and holiday celebrations, suffering religious minorities in Iraq simply wonder how to live after yet another round of horrific bombings and persecution.

Reminiscent of the 2009 Christmas Eve attack in Mosul, a car bomb detonated near St. John’s Catholic Church in Baghdad after a Christmas Day mass.  Two other attacks targeted Christian areas of Baghdad on Christmas Day, killing over thirty and leaving dozens wounded. Aside from Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community, other Iraqi minorities such as the Shi’ite community faced attacks in the lead up to a Shi’ite holy day that coincided with Christmas Eve.

What can we do in the midst of escalating sectarian violence in a country many Americans have sacrificed for years to rebuild? We can pray for courage and comfort for those left behind, send relief to devastated families, and pressure Iraqi political leaders to work against sectarianism and terrorism. We can also urge our own government to focus on the vital importance of religious freedom for fostering national political and local community stability as our diplomats convey U.S. foreign policy abroad.

A small step towards that goal occurred right before Christmas as the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee took up legislation introduced by Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) The bi-partisan legislation would create a special envoy at the U.S. Department of State to focus specifically on the status of religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. In a welcome move after two years of roadblocks in the Senate, the Committee approved the bill with unanimous support.

The current Administration has shown continued disinterest in incorporating religious freedom into overarching foreign policy goals (as evidenced most recently by the unwillingness to press Iran during talks for the release of an imprisoned American pastor).   Therefore, it is imperative that the full Senate move quickly to pass this legislation and convey renewed Congressional support for the core value of religious freedom. Companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has already been approved twice with overwhelming support in the 112th and 113th Congress. 

Religious persecution in countries such as Iraq has complex roots and many contributing factors. Yet, the ongoing silence from the State Department about a regional human rights crisis only contributes to the inattention suffering minorities receive from their own governments. A special envoy able to speak to the plight of these victims and to reemphasize the importance of religious freedom for American foreign policy would be an important addition to the State Department’s diplomatic team.  Without such a voice, dwindling religious minorities in the Middle East may find they won’t have many more Christmases or holy days left to commemorate in the future.