USCIRF Chair: Administration Sends 'Message That Religious Freedom Is Not That Important'

By Lauretta Brown | September 17, 2015 | 6:43pm EDT
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom chairman Prof. Robert P. George. (Photo: USCIRF)

(CNSNews.com) – The administration’s delays in appointing some key religious freedom posts in the State Department and in releasing the annual international religious freedom report were sending “the wrong message, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) chairman Robert P. George said Tuesday.

“They send the message that religious freedom is not that important in the formation and execution of our diplomatic policy,” George told CNSNews.com. “That’s a bad message.”

He was speaking after a discussion on international religious freedom, hosted by the Washington-based Freedom House.

“The whole reason for the 1998 [International] Religious Freedom Act, as passed by Congress, was to send the message that religious freedom is a high priority in our foreign policy,” George said.

“So it’s important therefore to make these appointments in a timely manner and to get the reports out on time as the statute requires.”

““This is not just a nice thing to do, it’s a legal requirement,” he added.

The landmark 1998 International Religious Freedom Act created the USCIRF, an independent statutory watchdog, as well as the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. It also mandated the State Department’s annual report to Congress on international religious freedom.

The department’s most recent annual report, covering 2013, was released in July 2014. The previous one, covering 2012, was released in May 2013.

Rabbi David Saperstein took up the ambassador-at-large post last February, before which it had been vacant since his predecessor, Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, left in October 2013.

“I was disappointed that we had such a long delay in the appointment for the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom,” George said. “We got a good man – we have Rabbi David Saperstein, he’s a good man, I’m so glad he’s there – but we should’ve had him in office months earlier.”

George said the same applied to the post of special envoy to protect religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia. The position was created under legislation that became law in August 2014, but has not been filled ever since.

“I think now we’re going to get a special envoy very soon,” George said, “but we cannot afford these delays because they send the wrong message.”

“Now I understand that any administration has many concerns or many complications. There are issues pressing from all sides, things get pushed aside and things fall behind – that’s in the nature of things,” he acknowledged.

“But my job as chairman of the International Commission on Religious Freedom is to advocate for religious freedom, and I am simply asking, no more and no less, that the priority for religious freedom established by statute, by U.S. law, be respected. This is all I’m asking.”

On Wednesday, Saperstein announced in a tweet that Knox Thames, currently director of policy and research at USCIRF, has been appointed as the department’s first “special advisor” on religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia.

USCIRF’s congressional authorization is set to expire on September 30. Religious leaders have called its reauthorization “vital.”

“Given the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom across the globe, USCIRF's work is more critical than ever,” George told CNSNews.com earlier this month, “Its reauthorization is an urgent priority.”

The nine-member, bipartisan USCIRF reviews religious freedom violations around the world and makes policy recommendations to the executive and legislative branches.

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