House Passes Meng Legislation to Make Desecration of Cemeteries a Violation of Religious Freedom

Grace_MengLegislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) to make the desecration of cemeteries – including Jewish cemeteries around the world – a violation of religious freedom, was passed late Wednesday afternoon by the full House of Representatives. The measure now heads for a vote in the United States Senate.

The Protect Cemeteries Act (H.R. 4028) would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the vandalizing of cemeteries as one of many infringements on the right to freedom of religion.

“This legislation would be a new and important tool in our fight against the desecration of cemeteries,” Meng said in a statement. “It would combat religiously-motivated vandalism of cemeteries and also prevent developers from building over cemeteries, a new and emerging threat in places where there are no Jewish communities left to protect burial grounds. It is essential that we increase preservation, tolerance and respect for cemeteries across the globe, and this legislation would go a long way towards accomplishing that critical goal. I applaud my colleagues in the House for approving this important bipartisan legislation, and I now call on the Senate to do the same.”

Meng introduced the Protect Cemeteries Act this past February and it was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.

Read Meng’s remarks delivered of the floor of the House during consideration of the bill below:

“Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong support of H.R. 4028, the Protect Cemeteries Act, which I authored. This resolution amends the International Religious Freedom Act to include the desecration of cemeteries among the forms of violations of the right to religious freedom.

I would like to thank Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel for helping to craft and advance this bipartisan resolution, and for recognizing the seriousness of cemetery desecration. There is truly a bipartisan and collaborative spirit on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and that’s a testament to its excellent leadership. I would also like thank Congressman Doug Collins for his partnership here and valuable contributions to the bill. And thank you to both Republican and Democratic committee staffs for recognizing the value of this resolution and working so hard to bring it to the floor today. I’d particularly like to thank Janice Kaguyutan, Jessica Kahan, and Doug Campbell for all their help and great work. Thanks as well to Agudath Israel and to Dr. Bernard Fryshman for his dogged advocacy on this issue over many years.

The resolution is short, but, I believe, very significant. We are strengthening the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 by addressing the sanctity of burial grounds. Pursuant to this Act, the United States can impose penalties on countries that obstruct religious freedom. These include but are not limited to cutting foreign aid, imposing trade sanctions, and cancelling cultural and scientific exchanges.

There are two related problems we seek to address through this legislation. One is the religiously-motivated vandalism of cemeteries that occurs with alarming regularity. The second is the building and development over cemeteries in places where there are no communities remaining to protect and look out for the cemeteries. HR 4028 will give our diplomats a new tool they can use to protect our interests.

HR 4028 also empowers the Commissions on International Religious Freedom and on the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. The latter Commission was established in the 1980’s through legislation introduced by the late Congressman Stephen Solarz. It works to identify and preserve cemeteries, memorials, and buildings in foreign countries that are associated with the cultural heritage of Americans, and it does much work in areas of the former Soviet Union, where Jewish communities were destroyed by the Holocaust and where power subsequently passed to atheistic, communist regimes.

It is essential that we act to protect religious freedom in these areas, where as we know political instability and anti-Semitism are widespread. The genocides of the 20th century destroyed communities and left their burial grounds uncared for and unpreserved.

The preservation of cemeteries often reflects the religious tolerance and freedom of the countries in which they are located. It is my hope that this resolution will help promote such preservation and greater tolerance, respect, and empathy around the world, as well as honest assessments of history. I urge my colleagues to support HR 4028 and I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. Speaker, unfortunately anti-Semitism and religious intolerance remain all too prevalent in our world. We grapple with these issues in some form every day. This resolution will give American officials real tools with which to promote not only religious tolerance, but truth – truth in the form of preservation and recognition of the memories of those who came before us. And only through truth can we realize a better world. I yield back the balance of my time.”

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