US Senate forcing shutdown of Religious Freedom Watchdog
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.
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. The USCIRF comprises nine, unpaid commissioners from the private sector who serve two-year, renewable terms.
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.
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.”
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) described the USCIRF as “the quintessential watchdog agency in this town. … “It doesn’t get the big press, …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.”
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.”
“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.”
Lindsay Vessey, advocacy director at Open Doors USA, said in an earlier statement that “Failure to re-authorize the USCIRF would send a message to rest of the world that religious freedom is no longer a national priority.”