Does the U.S. religious freedom commission need last rites?

Drama continues surrounding the possible extinction of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The small, sometimes controversial government commission, … Continued

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.

  • Religiousfreedomguru

    Is there any way one can keep the USCIRF and get rid of the appointed Commissioners who run it? I’ve worked with the USCIRF for several years and believe it can have an important role. But I’ve not been impressed with the appointed Commissioners, who seem to me only interested in playing diplomat and sending out press releases and not really interested finding ways to address the needs of suffering people. The organization is not effective, in my opinion, and if it continues some way should be found to reform it completely. Is it too late to propose a USCIRF where Commissioners are chosen from among the religious groups and NGOs invested in religious freedom, serve short terms (so they don’t get too self-important like those now serving), and focus less on luxury travel and press releases and do the hard work of protecting the voiceless and influencing government decisions. I feel bad for staff, who should be the ones running the Commission’s work. If it can’t be reformed, I’m sad to say, maybe it should close down and we fight for a new USCIRF next year.

  • Kinnereth

    The USCIRF does a great job and it has stood up for plenty of non-Christian groups. They’ve shed light on one of the most under-reported stories of this century: how religious persecution is wiping out entire faiths in many sections of the world – and not a whole lot of people seem too concerned about it. They should be: this country was founded on religious freedom and what happens overseas today can happen here tomorrow.

  • reah1

    With all the problems we face, this is one issue that seems to take care of itself very well when there is so much freedom here in the US for advocates of various points of view to have their say.

  • Nickj116

    Meanwhile…

    “The Obama administration is rolling out a new initiative that will consider a country’s record on gay rights when administering foreign aid. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also announced a global equality fund dedicated to help advancing the cause of gay rights. Clinton said the U.S. government had set aside more than $3 million to start the fund.”

    Persecution of gays? Huge problem. Persecution of Christians? Meh.

  • ThomasBaum

    Persecution is persecution.

    Seeing as we are all brothers and sisters, whether we like it or not, persecution of one is persecution of all.

  • internationaltraveler

    As someone deeply involved in efforts to get USCIRF reauthorized, I can only say that we were blindsided by repeated bi-partisan assurances that the reauthorization legislation would sail through without a substantial campaign on our parts. We only learned last month that, despite virtually unanimous bipartisan support for HR 2867 and S 1875, neither bill can make it to the Senate floor due to Senator Dick Durbin’s single handed opposition. He is trying to extract concessions from the primary House sponsors to get separate, unrelated legislation on Thomson Prison in IL to the floor. It is incomprehensible for a supposed human rights advocate to act like this, and we hope Senate leadership will require that he drop his opposition immediately.

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