Claims That U.S. Religious Freedom Commission Has Been Too Focused on Christians Don't Stack Up

By Patrick Goodenough | December 14, 2011 | 4:39 AM EST

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Leonard Leo visits Vietnam. (Photo: USCIRF)

( – Even though Christians are the world’s most persecuted religious group, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – which will close in days without urgent congressional action – has fulfilled its mandate of promoting religious freedom for all faiths, despite some claims to the contrary.

One criticism directed at the independent body, which was established under a 1998 law to advise the government on promoting religious freedom around the world, is that it has focused too much on Christian persecution, to the exclusion of others.

Critics also have alleged an anti-Islam bias, and some say Christians have been overrepresented among the nine unpaid commissioners.

Although the issue imperiling the future of the USCIRF is a Senate hold not directly linked to religious freedom, the question of bias has risen again over recent weeks.

“Many believe that the Commission's lack of context and reliable resources, and bias or over-focus toward the persecution of Christian minorities, has lead to an inequitable monitoring of international religious freedom,” Hindu American Foundation managing director Suhag Shukla wrote in October.

In a frequently cited article critical of the USCIRF, Joseph Grieboski, founder of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Public Policy, wrote that “the vast majority of the Commissioners represent the most populous religious faiths in the world.”

“This is oxymoronic, given that it is primarily religious minorities who are persecuted for their faith around the world,” Grieboski continued. “Yet the religious denominations to which the Christian Commissioners belong have developed such strong ties to the Commission’s congressional patrons over the years that they can get ‘their man’ appointed repeatedly.”

The commissioners are appointed not by the USCIRF itself, but by the president (three), congressional leaders of the president’s party (two) and congressional leaders of the party not in the White House (four).

Of the present and former commissioners over the lifetime of the USCIRF, as far as can ascertain 14 are Christian (six Roman Catholic, seven Protestant – Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, evangelical – and one Orthodox), five Muslim, three Jewish, one Mormon, one Hindu, one Buddhist and one Baha’i.

According to 2008 American Religious Identification Survey figures, 76 percent of American adults self-identified as Christians, 0.6 percent as Muslims, 1.17 percent as Jewish, 1.38 percent as Mormons, 0.25 percent as Hindus and 0.52 percent Buddhist. Baha’is were not recorded separately, but the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States says there were 169,578 adherents in the U.S. as of June 2011.

One of the key functions of the USCIRF has been to recommend to the administration which countries should be designated “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for perpetrating or condoning egregious religious freedom abuses.

The eight countries currently designated CPCs are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

In all of those countries, Christians face varying degrees of discrimination and ill-treatment. But other religious minorities are also targeted – and are also cited in the USCIRF’s annual recommendations for CPC designation.

They are:  Burma (Protestants, Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims), China (Catholics, Protestants, Uighur Muslims, Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists), Eritrea (Jehovah‘s Witnesses, evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, Muslims), Iran (Christians, Baha’i, Sufis), North Korea (Christians), Saudi Arabia  (Ismaili Muslims, Shi’ites, Christians), Sudan (Christians) and Uzbekistan (non-mainstream Muslims, Christians, Baha’i).

Under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the State Department has not always followed the USCIRF’s advice. Current unheeded USCIRF recommendations for designation apply to Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

Again, while Christians are mistreated in all six countries, so are adherents of other faiths.

They are: Egypt (Coptic Christians, Baha’i), Iraq (Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Mandeans and Kurdish Yazidis), Nigeria (Christians, Muslim sects), Pakistan (Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus), Turkmenistan (Jehovah‘s Witnesses) and Vietnam (Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists).

Shutdown would send negative message

Religious freedom groups appealing for the USCIRF to be reauthorized include those concerned about Christians under threat, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Open Doors.

But other faith groups also have spoken up. The American Islamic Congress since late October has been using its Twitter account to urge followers to ask their members of Congress to support USCIRF reauthorization legislation.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States also believes the USCIRF’s closure would be harmful.

“I think USCIRF has been very helpful,” Anthony Vance, the organization’s external affairs director, told on Tuesday.

“Since its inception, it has repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran, who, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, have been subject to systematic and severe persecution,” he said. “The USCIRF-generated attention has probably assisted in preventing the persecution from becoming even worse.”

Vance recalled that USCIRF commissioners had also visited Egypt in 2001 and urged authorities to free a dozen imprisoned Baha’is. “Gradually, over the next several months, all of the prisoners were released. Although I cannot prove causation, it appears likely to me that the combination of the USCIRF intervention and other steps brought about their release.”

“If USCIRF is shut down, a significant tool in opposing religious discrimination and persecution will be eliminated,” he said. “USCIRF’s relative independence and its ability to focus entirely on issues of religious freedom have permitted it to comment robustly.”

Asked what message the USCIRF’s demise would send, Vance replied, “it is difficult to imagine how the message conveyed abroad would not be negative with respect to the importance to the U.S. of religious freedom.”

Christians targeted most

Claims that the USCIRF has been too focused on Christians come despite the fact that Christians are by far the most persecuted religious group worldwide.

Last October the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences European of the European Union reported at a conference that at least 75 percent of all religious persecution worldwide was directed at Christians.

“An estimated 100 million Christians worldwide suffer interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ, with millions more facing discrimination and alienation,” says Open Doors USA.

According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, of the top 30 countries whose governments most tightly regulate religion, 20 are Islamic and four are communist. Christians face difficulties ranging from harassment and discrimination to severe persecution in nearly all of them.

In a Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life study released last August, Muslim-majority countries scored worst when it came to government restrictions on religion as well as social hostilities involving religion. Again, in most of the poorly-graded countries Christian minorities are the ones most at risk.

“Religious persecution is not only more prevalent among Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at more severe levels,” Pew religion expert Brian Grim and Roger Finke, professor of sociology and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in their 2010 book, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.

Referring to figures for the first seven years of this century, they continued, “Sixty-two percent of Muslim-majority countries have a moderate to high level of persecution (where more than 200 people have been persecuted), compared with only 28 percent of Christian-majority countries and 60 percent of other countries.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow