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Barbara Lee becomes Sudan Caucus co-chair

Rep. Barbara Lee is the newest of four co-chairs of the Congressional Sudan Caucus, which is still trying to draw more attention to the ongoing humanitarian disaster in that African nation.

Lee, D-Oakland, succeeds the late Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., as a co-chair; the other three co-chairs are Michael Capuano, D-Mass., Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Michael McCaul, R-Tex. The caucus was founded in 2005.

In her news release Tuesday, Lee noted ongoing strife in the Sudanese border areas of South Kordofan, Blue Nile, Abyei, and Darfur, and in Yida and other refugee camps in South Sudan. Civilians are subject to the Sudanese government’s indiscriminate bombing and denial of humanitarian aid, leaving nearly half a million at risk of starvation.

Lee said she’ll work with the other co-chairs “to bring Khartoum, Juba, and all stakeholders together to ensure that peace prevails in the region. At this critical time with Sudan and South Sudan on the brink of war, it is critical that Congress and the United States use all tools at its disposal to bring the two sides to the negotiating table for peace talks.”

Lee will take part in a subcommittee hearing on Sudan this Thursday and will host U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for a special briefing with members of Congress on international efforts to reach a peaceful resolution.

Lee has been active on the issue for some time, sponsoring legislation recognizing acts of genocide in the region and urging China as well as the Arab League to step up efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur. Her bill to allow divestment from companies doing business in the region was enacted into law in 2007.

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House passes Eshoo’s bill on religious minorities

The House today overwhelmingly approved a bill by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, to create a special State Department envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

The bill, HR 440, was introduced in January in the wake of increasing violence, targeted attacks and heightened discrimination against Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and persistent concerns in Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other nations. The House voted 402-20 today to approve it and send it on to the Senate.

Wolf co-chairs Congress’ bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, named for the late congressman from San Mateo. Threats against religious minorities have been increasing in recent months, he said, and the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless, to develop policies to protect and preserve these communities, and to prioritize these issues in broader U.S. foreign policy.

“The U.S. government needs an individual who can respond and focus on the critical situation of religious minorities in these countries whose basic human rights are increasingly under assault,” Wolf said in today’s news release. “If the international community fails to speak out, the prospects for religious pluralism and tolerance in the region are bleak.”

Eshoo, who co-founded and co-chairs the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus with Wolf, has long pressed the State Department to develop a comprehensive policy to address the unique needs of small, indigenous faith communities in Iraq that are being targeted for violence.

“In a time of partisanship and polarization, it’s gratifying when members from both parties can come together to address the humanitarian crisis that’s been unfolding in the Middle East, and has not been given the attention it deserves,” she said. “As the daughter of Assyrian and Armenian immigrants who fled the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, it’s terrifying to see history repeating itself in today’s Iraq. I’m hopeful that the special envoy created by this legislation will elevate the crisis of the Middle East’s religious minorities, giving them the diplomatic attention they so badly need and deserve.”

Reps. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose; and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough – Lantos’ successor – are among the bill’s co-sponsors.