(CNSNews.com) – An eleventh-hour temporary spending measure passed by Congress Thursday provides a one-month reprieve for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), but its future remains in doubt because of a Senate block on reauthorization legislation – a block reportedly unconnected with the issue of religious freedom.
The independent body’s chairman, Leonard Leo, appealed Thursday for the Senate to lift the hold.
“Disbanding USCIRF would be a tragic blunder,” he told a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. “It would signal to the world that the United States is retreating from the cause of religious freedom.”
A bill authorizing the commission for another two years was passed by the House of Representatives by a 391-21 vote nine weeks ago, but has been languishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since September 15 – held up, according to published reports, by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The USCIRF’s current temporary authorization was included in a continuing resolution (CR) enacted on Oct. 5, which expires today. A new CR passed by the House and Senate on Thursday to fund the federal government through December 16 now extends the commission’s life until that date. President Obama is expected to sign the measure shortly.
Created by the landmark 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the USCIRF has since then advised the executive and legislative branches on religious freedom around the world and raised with governments abroad – particularly Islamic and communist regimes – the plight of vulnerable and persecuted religious groups.
It has played a key role in elevating religious freedom promotion in U.S. foreign policy, and a number of religious freedom advocacy groups have expressed alarm at the prospect that it may be shut down.
Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing examined the State Department’s annual IRFA-mandated report on international religious freedom. Before turning to the report, Leo told the panel that the Senate was poised to let the USCIRF’s authorization expire.
“Senate action has been blocked, reportedly by concerns about a totally unrelated issue,” he said. “The Senate needs to reauthorize USCIRF now, before the clock runs out.”
Leo described the commission as “the world’s only independent governmental body fully devoted to advancing freedom of religion or belief.”
“USCIRF functions as an advisory body to members of Congress and their staffs, works closely with the State Department and serves as a voice for the voiceless – be they Baha’is, Ahmadiyya, Uighurs, or others who have been silenced by repressive governments or impunity,” he said, referring to religious minorities facing persecution in Iran, Pakistan and China respectively.
“These and other groups rely on us to stand with them,” Leo continued. “Through the commission’s advocacy work and visits, USCIRF also has played central roles in the release of religious prisoners, including those in Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia. Other countries are using USCIRF as a model for their efforts in support of religious freedom.”
According to Nina Shea, one of the USCIRF’s nine unpaid commissioners, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and the Philippines are among countries now examining similar models in support of religious freedom.
CNSNews.com has learned that the Senate hold may be tied to an issue totally unconnected to religious freedom or the USCIRF itself – a dispute over funding for a prison in Durbin’s home state, Illinois. Attempts to confirm the claim have been unsuccessful; Durbin’s office has not responded to inquiries and requests for comment.
The federal government’s plans to buy the empty Thomson correctional center in northwest Illinois for use as a federal maximum security prison have long been stalled, having run into congressional opposition to the Obama administration proposals to hold Guantanamo Bay detainees there.
Proponents say turning the facility into a federal prison would provide more than 1,000 jobs and boost investment in the area, but when Congress voted last December to stop the administration from moving al-Qaeda terror suspects onto U.S. territory it also halted the plan to buy the prison.
Illinois' Republican lawmakers dropped their objections to the prison buyout after the administration last April reversed the detainee proposal and said Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged 9/11 plotters would instead face military trials at Guantanamo Bay.
However the Thomson sale, which Durbin has championed, has not moved ahead.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, which funds federal prisons.
Wolf is also the lawmaker who introduced the 1998 IRFA, the legislation that created the USCIRF, and he sponsored this year’s bill reauthorizing the USCIRF – the bill Durbin is reportedly holding up.
Wolf’s office has not responded to queries on the matter, but when the House debated the reauthorization bill on Sept. 14, he said the bill was being “held hostage” by the Senate, adding that some senators “are trying to kill this commission, for some reason.”
“Quite frankly, I believe that some over there [in the Senate] and this very administration would not mind seeing this commission shut its doors,” he said.
The advocacy group International Christian Concern urged Americans Thursday to contact Durbin’s office to urge the senator to lift the hold on the reauthorization bill.
“At a time when reports of violent attacks against religious minorities occur almost daily, the United States can ill afford to silence one of the greatest voices speaking out against such intolerance,” said the organization’s advocacy officer, Isaac Six.
“Nothing less than our international reputation as a champion of religious freedom and human rights is at stake, and the thought that a single senator may compromise that reputation is disturbing, to say the least,” he added.