We need the U.S. Commission on International Religious Liberty

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on September 12, 2015

Religious liberty is a scarce commodity in most of the world. In its 2015 annual report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says, “The horrors of the past year speak volumes about how and why religious freedom and the protection of the rights of vulnerable religious communities matter.”

USCIRF is an independent watch-dog agency, created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act as “an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, the first of its kind in the world, dedicated to defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.”

USCIRF “makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and Congressional leaders of both political parties. Their work is supported by a professional, nonpartisan staff. USCIRF is separate from the State Department, although the Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is a non-voting ex officio Commissioner.”

USCIRF serves as an honest-broker for Members of Congress, the Executive branch (most especially the State Department), and numerous groups concerned with international religious liberty. Its research is thorough, non-partisan, and accurate. USCIRF personnel go on fact-finding trips to some of the world’s most difficult regions precisely because of the imperative of religious liberty as a foreign policy goal of the United States and the need for first-hand information-gathering to further that goal.

Unfortunately, USCIRF is in danger of losing its federal funding. At the end of September, USCIRF’s congressional authorization will end without Senate action. Specifically, the Senate needs to pass S. 1798, authored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Family Research Council recently joined with a large and diverse group of organizations and ministry leaders in the International Religious Freedom Roundtable to support S. 1798. As their letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee leadership notes, “While there is very little we agree on theologically, or politically, we all agree on the importance of international religious freedom. It strengthens cultures and provides the foundation for stable democracies and their components, including civil society, economic growth, and social harmony. As such, it is also the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon, preemptively undermining religious extremism.”

The letter goes on to document the seriousness of the situation. “The current state of international religious freedom is one of deepening crisis — according to the Pew Research Center’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion, 77% of the world’s population live in countries with a high or very high overall level of restriction on religion in 2013, up from 76% in 2012 and 68% in 2007.”

America should be concerned about religious liberty in other countries because religious liberty brings great benefit not only to individuals or groups within a given country but ultimately to American interests. As the Roundtable letter argues, religious liberty promotes social and political stability. It encourages economic well-being; as the distinguished scholar Dr. Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, documented last year in an FRC lecture, “religious freedom is good for business.”

But perhaps more than anything else, when America stands with those experiencing religious persecution, we say to those suffering, to their persecutors, and to the world at large that people of faith have a friend in the United States. No message could be more important in a world where America needs all the friends — true friends — it can get.

In its 2015 report, USCIRF found 17 countries whose governments either participate in or accept without effective action “particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious.” Another 10 nations were found in which “the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and are characterized by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ standard.”

Among these 27 countries were some of the world’s largest, including China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Turkey, as well as others (North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran) whose reputation for religious intolerance and outright persecution is well-known. USCIRF’s listing of these countries is a way of giving the United States leverage to hold them accountable, especially as in most of them, we have deep economic, military, or political ties.

In the United States, religious liberty is at risk, as FRC has documented extensively. This is deeply troubling; religious liberty is our “first freedom.” It is listed first in the Bill of Rights and guarantees our other freedoms. If our foremost allegiance is to God, then the state is by definition limited. An unlimited state, in contrast, seeks to usurp that allegiance and render us subjects, not citizens imbued with God-given dignity.

Religious liberty is the great political imperative of our time or of any time, one that makes repressive regimes shudder. As Dr. Tom Farr of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs has written, “Any state that protects religious liberty thereby limits itself — for this very reason, authoritarian governments might understandably permit some secular assembly and speech, while banning or restricting religious assembly and speech. Such has been a pattern throughout history — from Stalin, Mao and Hitler, to Mexico’s Plutarco Calles and Syria’s Bashar Assad.”

USCIRF helps enable the United States to advance our values and our interests in nations where American engagement is needed. Its loss would be a blow to our security and to international stability, not to mention to the millions of men and women around the world who need an American voice in their struggle for the safety to believe and practice their deepest convictions.



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