For 13 years, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has shined light on situations of egregious religious persecution globally. With a mandate from the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, USCIRF has provided forthright policy recommendations to the President, State Department, and Congress on responding to regimes that persecute actively or tolerate the persecution of religious believers.
But if Congress does not reauthorize its funding soon, USCIRF will cease to exist at a time when it is needed more than ever. Reauthorization legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House and was set to pass by unanimous consent in the Senate when a single senator anonymously called it back for undisclosed reasons. It would seem that one man, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, could cause the dissolution of the valuable religious freedom commission.
I was part of a coalition of religious and human rights organizations that worked to see the passage of IRFA in spite of the hostile climate caused by the secular myopia of U.S. foreign policy elites. One colleague in this battle, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom director, Nina Shea, observed “Human rights has often been described in American foreign policy as the island off the mainland of foreign policy. I look at religious freedom as the drowning man in the life raft off the island, off the mainland.”
Once again, the drowning man is in danger of being pushed off his life raft. The commission would have shut down on November 18 if not for a spending bill passed by both Houses on November 17 granting it a four-week reprieve. Concerned citizens have until December 16 to stop the demise of USCIRF.
With nine appointed commissioners (including Nina Shea) and a small professional staff, working on an extremely modest budget, USCIRF has helped persuade countries in which vulnerable minorities are persecuted that the United States government is serious about religious freedom. Many advocates for the persecuted church were appreciative that the commission was included in the law as a counterbalance or at least an enhancement to the Office on International Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department. The new State Department office and Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom were also important provisions of IRFA. But an office on international religious freedom at the State Department is still an office at the State Department – home to the previously discussed foreign policy elites. On the other hand, being independent, USCIRF speaks forthrightly about the behavior of thug regimes.
According to a recent article by CQ Weekly’s Shawn Zeller, Senator Durbin’s reasons for holding up the authorization have no direct relation to the commission. Rather, Durbin wants Congress to fund the purchase of an unused maximum-security prison in his state of Illinois and make it a federal facility that will provide jobs for his constituents. The prison, identified as the Thomson Correctional Center, is the same facility Senator Durbin wanted to hold detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Zeller offers that Durbin’s leverage could be that U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), who sponsored IRFA and greatly values the work of the commission, chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds federal prisons.”
The Congress has demonstrated the commitment of many of its members to sustaining USCIRF in that the recent reprieve is the third time this fall that Congress has approved a measure to keep the commission running temporarily since the “anonymous” hold stopped the reauthorization legislation. If Zeller’s findings are true, it is appalling that Senator Durbin would so cynically tie the continuation of USCIRF to any other issue. Dissolution of USCIRF would send a message to tyrants and thug regimes around the world that the United States no longer considers religious freedom a priority. The lives of millions of persecuted Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, Muslims, and other religious believers around the world should not be made more vulnerable because the United States Senate fails to remain the champion of individuals’ inalienable right to religious freedom.