Drama continues surrounding the possible extinction of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The small, sometimes controversial government commission, charged with promoting religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority, is only authorized to exist through Dec. 16. Unless a bill passes before then to extend its life, or some other government measure, the nine-member commission will close up shop. Commissioners sent out a last desperate plea for help this week all over Capitol Hill, and I’m told staff there are preparing for the worst, including packing boxes and looking for other jobs.
What’s interesting to me as someone who has watched the commission in recent years is the relative silence among members of Congress and the public in general about the possibility that this place might close up. This comes in a pre-campaign season in which religious conservatives in particular are calling assaults on religious freedom in the United States and abroad one of their top issues (note Rick Perry’s new ad, on that front). It comes with concerns rising about the health and safety of religious minorities in places from Iraq to Egypt.
To many Americans, the importance of a Washington-based commission may no doubt seem questionable in a struggling economy.
However, having covered USCIRF, I believe the lack of attention to this has at least a little to do with the controversies that have swirled around the commission and the fact that even some religious freedom advocates feel the cause is better furthered in other ways, that the place is not money well spent. They note the tension that exists between the commission and a similar office at the State Department. They note the fact that commission members have long been accused of focusing too much on the persecution of Christians and not enough on smaller religious groups. In fact, the commission is facing an open lawsuit charging its leaders with discriminating against a Muslim employee.
Interestingly, the latest push to save USCIRF is being led by a small Muslim-American advocacy group, the American Islamic Congress. In a letter to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, who is reportedly holding up a vote on one of the bills to reauthorize USCIRF, the Muslim group called the commission “an essential conduit for collaborative work between the U.S. government, foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and acts as a vital resource and beacon of freedom to people of all faiths.”
Something could obviously happen to save USCIRF at the last minute, but it seems the U.S. strategy for engaging this subject is still in flux and the topic is not a top priority for many Americans.