UPDATE! On pain of making this article even longer, there is breaking news today. The reauthorization of USCIRF has been included in the omnibus spending bill, with reauthorization for three years. We will update again when the omnibus bill has been passed.
Over twenty-one years ago the U.S. Senate passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) with a vote of 98-0. This seems remarkable in these days of harsh and unrelenting partisanship. But it was even remarkable in 1998 when I was part of the new movement for global religious freedom.
One particular provision of the Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton as U.S. Public Law No. 105-292, was strenuously resisted by such diverse entities as the Clinton Administration, the National Council of Churches (NCC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others. That provision was the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Today USCIRF, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with monitoring global religious freedom and making recommendations, remains a sticking point to many. Now, as then, those opposed to USCIRF oppose it for a number of reasons: its independence, its efforts to hold persecuting countries accountable, and its willingness to specifically identify Christians along with all the other victims of religious persecution.
In a November 14 World Magazine article Harvest Prude lays out how some in Congress are trying once again to take away USCIRF’s freedom. Former commissioner Kristina Arriaga resigned in protest over legislative moves that would “undermine the independence of the commissioners” to the point “where she could “no longer be an effective advocate for religious freedom.”
Congressional proposals to alter USCIRF Prude outlines include:
- Removing “staggered terms for commissioners” and giving “each commissioner only one, non-renewable three-year term. So all commissioners depart at once, leaving inexperienced members coming on.”
- Subjecting commissioners “to rules that usually apply to federal government employees or congressional commission employees even though commissioners serve as volunteers. The legislation would require them never to be identified or affiliated with USCIRF if publicly speaking as private citizens. If someone identifies them as commissioners, they must report that to the Senate, or to ‘the appropriate congressional committees’ annually.”
- Requiring “annual reports to Congress of any foreign travel paid for by someone other than the commissioner, a relative, or the U.S. government.”
- Mandating “that any commissioner invited to speak in his official capacity must notify all other commissioners and the commission’s executive director. Members could then vote to send a different commissioner. The proposal also requires commissioners to keep records of all official communications.”
Some aren’t satisfied with weakening USCIRF’s power. In a December 4 column in Religion News Service Mark Silk declared, “Let the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Expire.” The column calls USCIRF a “Trojan horse” that the “instigators succeeded in rolling” into the International Religious Freedom Act at the last minute.
You bet USCIRF was in IRFA! The “instigators,” our international religious freedom coalition, had met for months. We supported the legislation, first known as Wolf-Specter after its sponsors, U.S. Representative Frank Wolf and the late Senator Arlen Specter, or as the “Freedom from Religious Persecution Act.” (Today the reauthorized international religious freedom act is known as the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act.) Although there had been many compromises and concessions, no concession was acceptable on an independent government monitoring agency.
There had been efforts to pre-empt religious freedom having a major role in U.S. foreign policy by hastily creating an “advisory” office soon after the international religious freedom movement started gaining momentum. Some insisted that a small office at the State Department (probably in a broom closet, if they had their way) was more than sufficient. After all, who really cares about religion?
Fortunately, that office evolved with the legislation into a full-fledged Office of International Religious Freedom. Today it’s in the Department of Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. The IRF Office and its Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, are essential to U.S. policy on international religious freedom.
But USCIRF is also essential. It was worth fighting to keep it in the legislation. It has been worth fighting for every time USCIRF has been up for reauthorization, facing new obstacles, as well as the same old ones. And the fight is worth fighting today to save USCIRF. Not just to save it, but to allow it to be fully what IRFA intended.
The religious freedom coalition envisioned USCIRF as a watchdog for other government agencies and bureaucrats. We were well aware that “quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy” as practiced by some members of Congress was not always sufficient. So USCIRF would monitor religious persecution and threaten the dreaded CPC designation on countries for which those in more lofty environs needed encouragement to criticize.
Clintonian secularists opposed this kind of messing about in foreign relations for the sake of persecuted people. Not just the independent commission, but the entire Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, was resisted by these elites and by the old line Religious Left. The Wolf-Specter legislation passed in the House in 1997, but never moved on. It had too many sharp teeth for the Senate’s liking.
The Senate knocked out a few of those teeth to achieve the nuance desired by the State Department. But even the new legislation strenuously was resisted. In October 1998, just before the vote, major newspapers prophesied that the religious freedom bill was “dead in the water.”
This gloomy scenario was because in months leading to the vote the left-leaning National Council of Churches (NCC) put on an impressive dog-and-pony show against the bill. They shepherded certain state-friendly international church leaders to the Hill to discourage Congress from passing the legislation. In April 1998 RNS reported, “Efforts to derail a proposed bill in Congress that would trigger automatic sanctions against nations found to persecute religious minorities accelerated this week on Capitol Hill and at the White House.”
The sanctions scenario was exaggerated by the overwrought NCC and its media cohorts. Both of the bill’s sanctioning provisions – the State Department office on international religious freedom and the independent commission – included a suggested menu of sanctions coordinated with the CPC designation. And sanctions have not been automatically imposed. Rather, they empowered the Secretary of State to enter into direct consultations with a government to try to find ways to improve religious freedom.
It was the threat of sanctions that was always meant to be the impetus for change. Just the threat that USCIRF would put a country on the County of Particular Concern (CPC) list was an impetus for that country to clean up its act. But countries with persecution problems only take it seriously when USCIRF functions the way it was intended, and when USCIRF’s role is respected by Congress and the media.
It wasn’t just the sanctions hysterics that were bogus. The motive for opposing the legislation, particularly sanctions, seemed a wee bit less spiritual in nature when it was learned that the NCC joined forces with the National Foreign Trade Council’s USA*Engage. The secret collaboration was exposed thoroughly in a two part article “So You Want to Trade With a Dictator?” by investigative journalist Ken Silverstein in Mother Jones magazine.
The impressive investigation tracks the anti-sanction movement’s work to delink trade from human rights, including fighting “The God Lobby” (Wolf-Specter bill) in 1997. “USA*Engage sprang into action,” says Silverstein. They “fought fire with hellfire.” They recruited major U.S. denominational religious leaders to warn that sanctions would do more harm than good.
Sometimes this traveling caravan just outright denied or downplayed the idea of persecution. The NCC’s Albert Pennybacker told Congress that “What may appear as ‘persecution’ may in fact be the wish to preserve authentic religious and cultural traditions,” Silverstein reported.
I’ve been to enough NCC meetings to provide interpretation. Preserving “authentic religious and cultural traditions” is just a cleaned up way of saying: The government will preserve religious tradition by not allowing conversion. They will execute you for apostasy. It only appears to be “persecution” if you are stupid enough to convert.
In the ensuing years, agenda-laden members of Congress, elitist journalists and think tank denizens, austere religious scholars, and any number of others have opposed USCIRF’s defense of persecuted Christians. This opposition has resurfaced every time that USCIRF has been up for reauthorization.
In the RNS column Silk flippantly refers to USCIRF Commissioners Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Johnnie Moore as “Trump court evangelicals.” He criticizes USCIRF for having “continually re-appointed GOP-appointed commissioners intent on highlighting the persecution of Christians.”
If commissioners “highlight” the persecution of Christians is it a bad thing? Is it wrong to highlight the persecution of the most persecuted religious group on the planet? Is this enough reason for Congress to allow USCIRF to expire?
It’s not a zero-sum game. USCIRF does not favor Christians over other persecuted peoples. The Commission defends persecuted believers of all faiths. But in an age in which at least 245 million Christians around the world are suffering severe persecution, it is still considered bad taste by the elites to talk about “Christians” being persecuted.
USCIRF’s $3 or 4 million budget is modest by Washington standards (compare its hundreds of investigations, briefings, and reports to one $33 million Russian collusion investigation). USCIRF is, in the words of former commissioner Arriaga, “doing good things, but it could be doing great things.” The creation of the international religious freedom legislation those two decades ago was a great thing that has helped countless peoples around the world. USCIRF has played a key role in the IRFA “toolbox” and needs to continue that role.
 “Country of Particular Concern.” A tiered designation list for countries that either actively participate in persecution of religious believers or do nothing to stop non-state actors from persecuting religious believers. Although it is seen as a “stick” to be on the CPC list, the “carrot” included is that when a country works to improve the situation, it is moved off the list.
 April 1998 RNS article, “Opposition to Religious Persecution Measure Stepped Up,” by Ira Rifkin in my inbox archive.