With Wednesday’s expiration of the Congressional mandate for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the American Catholic bishops have formally petitioned Congress to reinstate it.
Writing for the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, chairman Bishop Oscar Cantú implored Congress “to pass legislation to reauthorize the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom” whose mandate expired on September 30, 2015.
Cantú noted that the Catholic Church “has long viewed protection of religious freedom as a cornerstone of the structure of human rights” which is “critical to the health of societies.”
He also praised the work of the USCIRF itself “because of its critical role in promoting human rights around the world by monitoring and promoting religious freedom.”
By its nature as an independent, bipartisan commission, USCIRF has proved to be a more unbiased critic of international religious freedom violations than the U.S. State Department, openly chastising nations that the reigning administration has shied away from for political reasons.
Both the U.S. State Department and the Commission publish a list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) “where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated.” Differences between the official State Department list and the Commission’s list—in its role as an independent advisory body—were noteworthy.
Remarkably, the State Department’s most recent list of CPCs did not include some of the countries of greatest persecution of Christians in the world today, namely: Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
In its report, the USCIRF strongly recommended that the State Department add these countries to its list of CPCs, along with Central African Republic, Egypt, Tajikistan, and Vietnam.
The Commission stated that:
It should come as no surprise that in the pages of this report, we have recommended that the United States designate all five of these nations – Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Burma – as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs under the International Religious Freedom Act. We are identifying their governments as well as others as either perpetrating or tolerating some of the worse abuses of religious freedom in the world.
In its recommendations, the Commission overlapped significantly with the World Watch List (WWL) for 2015, which found that nine out of the top ten countries where Christians suffer “extreme persecution” have populations that are at least 50% Muslim, and that “Islamic extremism is by far the most significant persecution engine” of Christians in the world today.
USCIRF has also resisted attempts of the Obama administration to substitute the language of religious freedom with the more restricted language of “freedom of worship,” a theme that Pope Francis hammered home in his recent visit to the United States.
“Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God,” Francis said in Philadelphia last week. “But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”
Leaving the State Department as the only U.S. government institution to evaluate religious liberty worldwide is like leaving the fox to guard the henhouse, since the Obama Administration has been notoriously soft on religious liberty internationally and often hostile to it at home.
“At a time when international religious freedom is increasingly imperiled,” Bishop Cantú wrote, “it is vital that USCIRF be reauthorized so that it can continue to highlight the need to protect those who are discriminated against, harassed and even killed for their faith.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome