Senate May Force Shutdown of Religious Freedom Watchdog

By Patrick Goodenough | November 11, 2011 | 4:38am EST

USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo and commissioners Nina Shea, Felice Gaer and Talal Eid meet with Pakistani Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti. Bhatti, the only Christian member of the Pakistan's federal cabinet, was assassinated in Islamabad on March 2, 2011 by gunmen who linked the killing to his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. (Photo: USCIRF)

( – For more than a decade, an independent, statutory monitor has been advising the U.S. executive and legislative branches on international religious freedom, drawing attention to the persecution of people of faith under Muslim, communist and autocratic regimes from Riyadh to Rangoon. But by this time next week, it may have to close its doors.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) will shut down unless the U.S. Senate approves a reauthorization bill before then, or unless funding is included in a new continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government through the end of the year.

Last September the House of Representatives passed by an overwhelming vote a bill extending the USCIRF’s life for another two years. The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where it has been held up – by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), according to published reports.

Durbin’s office has not responded to inquiries and requests for comment.

If the Senate does not pass the bill before the current temporary authorization expires next Friday, and the commission is not covered in a new CR, it will cease to operate.

Since its formation in 1999, the USCIRF has kept the issue of religious persecution on the agenda, while challenging three administrations to take firmer steps against regimes that violate religious freedom.

It has drawn attention to the plight of Christians in predominantly Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Iraq and Nigeria; to ongoing religious restrictions and harassment of believers by Vietnam’s communist authorities; to incitement in Saudi school textbooks and materials used in mosques in the U.S.; to attempts by the Islamic bloc at the U.N. to outlaw religious “defamation” and promote blasphemy laws; and to the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, Buddhists and Protestants in Burma and Uighur Muslims in China.

A key function of the USCIRF has been its recommendations for the State Department to designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) under the International Religious Freedom Act, the same 1998 legislation that created the commission.

The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all followed some recommendations, but not others. The Obama State Department recently overruled USCIRF recommendations to designate Pakistan, Vietnam, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and Turkmenistan as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), in addition to those currently on the list (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.)

CPCs are countries whose governments either perpetrate or condone “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” abuses of religious freedom. The U.S. may impose sanctions or take other diplomatic steps as incentives to improve.

‘Trying to kill this commission’

The USCIRF comprises nine, unpaid commissioners from the private sector who serve two-year, renewable terms. Three are appointed by the president, two by the leaders of the president’s party in Congress, and four by congressional leaders of the party not in the White House.

The administration’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom – currently Suzan Johnson Cook – serves as a non-voting tenth member.

USCIRF commissioner Don Argue visits Turkmenistan. (Photo: USCIRF)

Among their responsibilities, commissioners travel and meet with government figures, religious leaders and victims of persecution. The USCIRF says commissioners have visited Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

When the House debated the reauthorization bill on Sept. 14, its author, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) voiced frustration with the situation in the Senate, saying some members there “are trying to kill this commission, for some reason.”

“Quite frankly, I believe that some over there [in the Senate] and this very administration would not mind seeing this commission shut its doors,” he said.

During the same debate Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) described the USCIRF as “the quintessential watchdog agency in this town.”

“It doesn't get the big press, as Mr. Wolf said,” Smith said. “It doesn't have the big bucks – no K Street lobbyists – but it is a wonderful and a very important and effective commission that keeps track of religious persecution globally, that keeps us in line in the House and the Senate and also the State Department.”

The USCIRF does have its critics.

Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, says the USCIRF acts inappropriately as “a watchdog to the State Department,” and in a recent Huffington Post article wrote that the commission becomes “shrill and strident” when its policy recommendations are not adopted.

Grieboski also has raised questions about the funding and resources available to the USCIRF.

“To be blunt, a watchdog agency should not have an equal or greater number of staff or resources than the office it oversees,” he told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing last June.

(The reauthorization bill passed by the House in September reduces the number of commissioners from nine to five, prohibits the appointment of commissioner for more than two consecutive terms, and reduces its annual budget from around $4.3 million to $3 million.)

‘Vital role, valuable resource’

The possibility of a USCIRF shutdown has alarmed some religious freedom advocacy groups.

“The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom plays a vital role in defending religious freedom around the world,” American Center for Law and Justice executive director Jordan Sekulow said Thursday.

“The USCIRF’s independent nature makes its work unique. It is a valuable resource in a world where religious persecution and violations of religious freedom continue to threaten people of faith – especially Christians.”

Pointing to the still-unresolved case of an Iranian pastor sentenced to death for apostasy, Sekulow said the ACLJ was grateful for the USCIRF’s concern and support for Youcef Nadarkhani.

He urged the Senate to approve the bill, “to continue funding this important entity.”

Lindsay Vessey, advocacy director at Open Doors USA, said in an earlier statement that “[f]ailure to re-authorize the USCIRF would send a message to rest of the world that religious freedom is no longer a national priority.”

In a recent letter to senators, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) also voiced concern about the situation.

“Ongoing attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and in other parts of the world point to the need to pay more, not less, attention to religious freedom,” wrote Bishop Howard Hubbard, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace.

Citing recent violence against Christians in Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq, he said the mission of the USCIRF was today “more important than ever.”

“Abolition of this body would send an unintended message to the rest of the world. Oppressive groups may come to believe that the United States is not committed to the protection of religious liberty.”

CitizenLink, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, is urging Americans to contact their senators to urge reauthorization of the USCIRF.

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