(CNSNews.com) – At a time when religious persecution is on the rise across the globe, the U.S. House voted Tuesday to reauthorize a statutory religious freedom watchdog. The move was welcomed by the bill’s sponsor, who said the independent body is not constrained by diplomatic considerations when shining a spotlight on abusers.
“The [U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom] can be relied upon to consistently give the unvarnished truth about the true state of religious freedom in countries around the globe, whether they are strategic allies or adversaries,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said after the legislation was passed by voice vote.
“USCIRF is unhindered by the bureaucratic morass that so often stymies the State Department during Republican and Democratic administrations alike.”
The USCIRF Reauthorization Act reauthorizes the commission through fiscal year 2019. Created under the 1999 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the USCIRF advises the executive and legislative branches on promoting religious freedom abroad. It comprises unpaid expert commissioners, appointed by the administration and congressional leaders.
Wolf’s remarks on its independent status highlight the tensions evident at times between the commission and the State Department, seen most clearly when the department disregards a USCIRF recommendation that a particular country be blacklisted for violating religious freedom.
Pakistan arguably has been the biggest beneficiary of the State Department’s reluctance to impose penalties on a country viewed as an important counter-terrorism partner. Citing notorious blasphemy laws and other abuses, the USCIRF has called for Pakistan to be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC) every year since 2002, and the State Department has overruled the recommendation each time.
Under the IRFA the administration may impose sanctions or take other measures against CPCs, designed to generate improved behavior from governments which either themselves violate citizens’ religious freedom, or permit other parties to do so.
Even when the administration has followed a USCIRF recommendation on CPC designation, it has at times chosen to waive sanctions, favoring dialogue instead. The clearest case of this has been Saudi Arabia, which has been blacklisted since 2004 but which neither the Bush nor Obama administration has sanctioned as a result.
Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is viewed as a key U.S. ally. Both Islamic nations are widely viewed by religious freedom campaigners as severe violators, with Christians, minority Shi’ites and heterodox Muslims (like Ismailis and Ahmadis) most often the victims.
Currently the State Department designates eight countries as CPCs – the same eight to have been on the list since 2007: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The USCIRF supports those eight designations, but is prodding the administration to add another eight – Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
Apart from differences over CPC designation, the USCIRF has also expressed frustration over delays by the administration in appointing an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, another key instrument authorized by IRFA. (See related story)
Wolf, a veteran advocate for religious minorities who introduced the IRFA in 1998, said Tuesday the USCIRF has been, and with reauthorization now continues to be, “the voice of marginalized, oppressed and persecuted people who dare to worship according to the dictates of their conscience.”
He cited the situation in Iraq, where the centuries-old Christian community is facing its gravest threat yet as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) advances across its historical homeland; the perils facing religious minorities in Syria and Egypt; and severe restrictions imposed in Vietnam, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.
“Given the state of religious freedom abroad today, the sobering reality is that the commission’s voice is as needed as it has ever been,” Wolf said.