International Religious Freedom


September 1, 2015

Fighting for USCIRF: US Global Religious Freedom Advocacy Under Threat Again

In the late 1990’s, IRD was at the forefront of the fight to pass the International Religious Freedom Act, including a key provision of that bill — the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Today IRD is part of the battle to save USCIRF from attempts to cripple and even dismantle it.

Time is running out; USCIRF’s authorization sunsets on September 30. So a coalition of organizations and individuals committed to advocacy for the persecuted has come together to fight for its reauthorization. Under the coordination of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, 86 such advocates have signed on so far to a letter endorsing USCIRF to the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that even now is considering two very different bills concerning the re-authorization of USCIRF. IRD’s Religious Liberty Program has so far recruited 10 of the letter’s 86 signatories.

The passage of International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) was a watershed moment for religious freedom advocacy. For the first time, legislation enshrined advocacy for persecuted religious believers into U.S. foreign policy. The bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 27, 1998. It is now the law of the land (Public Law No: 105-292) – although that does not always seem to make a difference when it comes to how such laws are implemented.

Regardless of faulty implementation, though, the provisions of IRFA provided more ways in which concerned citizens could be involved in advocacy for the persecuted church and other persecuted religious believers around the world than ever before. One of these important new avenues of advocacy was USCIRF, an independent federal commission to advise the President, State Department, and Congress on conditions of global religious persecution through an annual report and other methods, including identification of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) – where violations of religious freedom are most egregious.

As the time for re-authorization by Congress approaches, J.C. Derrick, in World magazine on July 25, 2015 warns:

Hostility to religion worldwide has only grown in the years since, but the Obama years have seen the commission’s future and its independence repeatedly challenged. In some two dozen interviews, USCIRF commissioners, lawmakers, and staffers told me they believe the commission’s existence is in danger. Backroom strife coupled with partisanship—and now possible conflicts of interest—all threaten to derail USCIRF at a time when it is most needed by persecuted religious adherents.

In response to these threats, the letter we have signed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urges a six-year reauthorization of the commission, along with other various other provisions strengthening USCIRF’s mandate. These provisions are outlined in Senate Bill 1798, introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in July. S 1798 would allow USCIRF to expand the designation of “countries of particular concern” to include non-state actors such as ISIS and Boko Haram as “entities of particular concern for religious freedom.” It would also require that Foreign Service Officers receive USCIRF-provided training “in internationally recognized human rights, including on the relationship between religious freedom and security and the role of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.”

In addition to praising the approach of Rubio’s bill, the letter expresses alarm over a rival bill, S 1860, introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) a week after Rubio’s bill.  Durbin’s bill would “would significantly alter USCIRF, including: make USCIRF subject to the Freedom of Information Act, remove the requirement of a bipartisan commission vote for staffing decisions, roll back commissioners’ information-gathering ability, and make USCIRF’s annual report a response to the State Department’s international religious freedom report—killing its advisory role,” according to J.C. Derrick.  This concern echoes that of USCIRF Commissioners Chairman, Dr. Robert P. George and past Chairman, Katrina Lantos Swett.

Although the International Religious Freedom Roundtable has already shared the letter with the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) and the Ranking Member, Senator Ben Cardin, (D-MD) the letter is open to add more signatures of religious leaders until September 8.

IRD’s Religious Liberty Program will encourage more bishops in the Anglican Church in North America to join their Archbishop, the Most Rev. Foley Beach, and his predecessor, the Most Rev. Robert Duncan, as well as Bishops David Anderson, John Guernsey, and Jack Iker in signing on to this letter. Other signatories personally recruited by IRD include the Rev. Canon Philip Ashey and the American Anglican Council, as well as the Presiding Bishop of North American Lutheran Church Rev. John F. Bradosky. We were also pleased to see other member leaders of the Common Ground Christian Network sign on to the letter.

If you care about the persecuted church, here is a very tangible way in which you can “do something.” Helping persecuted Christians and others will become far more difficult if USCIRF is ended, or even restricted in the ways it would be under Durbin bill S 1860. You can urge your senators to support Senator Rubio’s bill, S 1798 and ensure its passage before September 30, when the sun sets on USCIRF.

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