United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
|Formed||October 28, 1998|
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a U.S. federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. USCIRF's principal responsibilities are to review the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom internationally and to make policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.
- An Office of International Religious Freedom in the United States Department of State, headed by an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
- A mandate that the State Department prepare Annual Reports on International Religious Freedom
- A requirement to name the most egregious religious freedom violators as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) and to take policy actions in response to all violations of religious freedom as a specific element of U.S. foreign policy programs, cultural exchanges, and international broadcasting.
- The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
The legislation authorizing the USCIRF stated that the Commission would terminate on September 30, 2011, unless it was reauthorized or given a temporary extension. It was given several extensions by the Congress, but would have expired at 5:00 pm on Friday, December 16, 2011 had it not been reauthorized for a seven-year term (until 2018), on the morning of the 16th. This happened after a new reauthorization bill passed both Houses containing two amendments were made to it that Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL (the Senate Majority Whip) had wanted as a condition of releasing a hold he had placed on the former version of the bill; he released it on December 13, after the revisions were made. They stipulate that there will be a two-year limit on terms for commissioners, and that they will be under the same travel restrictions as employees of the Department of State.
In 2016, the U.S. Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which amended IRFA in various ways, including adding a category of designation for non-state actors.
Duties and responsibilities
USCIRF researches and monitors international religious freedom issues. The Commission is authorized to travel on fact-finding missions to other countries and hold public hearings.
The Commission on International Religious Freedom issues an annual report that includes policy recommendations to the U.S. government based on the report's evaluation of the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations worldwide.
The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 provides for the Commission to be composed of ten members:
- Three appointed by the President
- Three appointed by the President pro tempore of the Senate, of which two of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the Senate of the political party that is not the political party of the President, and of which one of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the Senate of the other political party
- Three appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, of which two of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the House of the political party that is not the political party of the President, and of which one of the members shall be appointed upon the recommendation of the leader in the House of the other political party.
- The Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as a non-voting ex officio member
IRFA provides that "Members of the Commission shall be selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law." Commissioners are not paid for their work on the Commission, but are provided a travel budget and a 15–20 member staff. Appointments last for two years, and Commissioners are eligible for reappointment.
As of mid 2020, the Commissioners were:
- Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz (Vice Chair). Also former Executive Director of Becket Law.
- Gayle Manchin (Vice Chair). Also former First Lady of West Virginia from 2005 to 2010.
- Gary L. Bauer. Also former president of Christian conservative policy and lobbying organization the Family Research Council from 1988 to 1999.
- James W. Carr, President and Chairman of Highland Home Holdings, an investment fund. Before retirement in 2019, served as Executive Vice President and Professor of Business of Harding University for 25 years.
- Nadine Maenza. Also Executive Director of Rick Santorum's conservative values PAC Patriot Voices.
- Johnnie Moore. Also founder and CEO of the KAIROS Company, a public relations consultancy.
- Tony Perkins. Also current president of the Family Research Council.
- Anurima Bhargava. Founder and President of Anthem of Us.
- Nury Turkel, Chairman of the Board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project and former President of the Uyghur American Association
Past Commissioners include David Saperstein, Preeta D. Bansal, John Hanford, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Charles J. Chaput, Michael K. Young, Firuz Kazemzadeh, Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli, John R. Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Felice D. Gaer, Azizah Y. al-Hibri, Leonard Leo, Richard Land and Tenzin Dorjee (Chair). Also Professor at the Department of Human Communication Studies, California State University, Fullerton..
In December 2019, the United States placed Pakistan and China along with Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in the list of countries having engaged in or tolerated "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom". Moreover, Comoros, Russia and Uzbekistan were added on a Special Watch List (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or tolerated "severe violations of religious freedom", in addition to Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Sudan.
USCIRF has placed India on CPC and watch list in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010. Their report has drawn criticism from the Indian press. The Pioneer, in an editorial termed it as "fiction", "biased", and "Surpassing Goebbels". It criticized USCIRF for projecting the massacre of 58 Hindu passengers as an accident. It also accused USCIRF of indirectly justifying murder of Swami Lakshamananda Saraswati, a Hindu cleric and social activist.
Christian leaders in Odisha defended India: Archbishop Raphael Cheenath stated that India remained of a secular character, the president of the Odisha Minority Forum that, despite a small hate campaign against minorities, the majority of society had been "cordial and supportive", and the Orissa Secular Front that, despite the 2002 and 2008 riots, India had a strong secular foundation.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has criticized USCIRF for a lack of transparency, for defending Christian missionary groups for converting Hindus, failing to mention the plight of Hindu Kashmiri Pandit refugees, and for commissioning a biased special report on India by Iqtidar Cheema. Specifically, HAF points out that Cheema is a native of Pakistan, who has been honored by Pakistani government bodies, and supports Pakistan’s foreign policy goals as well. Furthermore, Cheema has supported Islamic separatist movements in Kashmir, Khalistani separatism in Punjab and supports the banned Babbar Khalsa terrorist group.
In the 2019 USCIRF report, the chairman Tenzin Dorjee disagreed with the commission's designation of India as a CPC citing having lived in India for 30 years as a religious refugee stating that "India is an open society with a robust democratic and judiciary system. India is a great civilization, and since ancient times she has been a country of multifaith, multilingual, and multicultural [diversity]."
In India, the government and other analysts perceived this critical report as a reaction to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 crackdown by the Government of India of Evangelical missionary organizations which engaged in predatory proselytization, and share close ties with the USCIRF.
Prior to the 2001 visit of the USCIRF to Egypt, some Coptic leaders in Egypt protested, viewing the visit as a form of American imperialism. For example, Mounir Azmi, a member of the Coptic Community Council, said that despite problems for Copts, the visit was a "vile campaign against Egypt" and would be unhelpful. Another critic called the visit "foreign intervention in our internal affairs". In the event, the USCIRF was able to meet the Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III and Mohammed Sayed Tantawi of Al-Azhar University, but others refused to meet the delegation. Hisham Kassem, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, felt that insisting on the rights of Christians in Egypt might antagonize Muslims and thus be counterproductive.
The first-ever U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, criticized the USCIRF's emphasis on the punishment of religious persecution over the promotion of religious freedom. In his view, the USCIRF was "only cursing the darkness." As an example, he highlighted the Commission's decision to designate Laos a Country of Particular Concern in 2002 despite release of religious prisoners. He further stated "...that which was conceived in error and delivered in chaos has now been consigned to irrelevancy. Unless the Commission finds some candles soon, Congress ought to turn out the lights."
The Commission responded that despite the releases, the Marxist, Pathet Lao government in Laos still had systemic impediments to religious freedom, such as laws allowing religious activities only with the consent of Pathet Lao government officials, and laws allowing the government to determine whether a religious community is in accord with its own teaching.
Other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious freedom and human rights advocates, policy experts and Members of Congress, have defended the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's research work, and various reports on the Pathet Lao government's increased and serious religious persecution in Laos, from Seiple's controversial criticism. They have pointed out potential conflicts of interest involving reported grant monies Seiple, or a non-profit organization connected to Seiple, reportedly received from officials at the U.S. Department of State to apparently seek to minimize grossly increased religious persecution and widespread human rights violations by the Lao government and the Lao People's Army.
In 2007, Central Asia and foreign affairs experts S. Frederick Starr, Brenda Shaffer, and Svante Cornell accused USCIRF of championing the rights of groups that aspire to impose religious coercion on others in the name of religious freedom in the Central Asian states of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. USCIRF has castigated these countries for excessive and restrictions on religious freedom and repression of non-traditional religious groups, despite them having a strict separation of church and state, refusing to make Islam the state religion, and having a secular legal system.
Tajikistan Foreign Ministry criticizes USCIRF report on March 13, 2020. Tajikistan calls on the U.S. Department of State to refrain from publishing unverified and groundless information not related to the actual situation with the rule of law and respect of human rights in Tajikistan.
Accusations of Christian bias and other issues
The Commission has been accused of being biased towards focusing on the persecution of Christians and of being anti-Muslim & Hinduphobic. A former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she was fired because she was a Muslim and a member of an advocacy group, the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Current commissioners and some other religious freedom advocates deny the claims of bias. The commission has also been accused of in-fighting and ineffectiveness.
Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch said about the report: "I think the legislative history of this Act will probably reflect that there was a great deal of interest in protecting the rights of Christians .... So I think that the burden is probably on the US government to show that in this Act they're not engaging in crusading or proselytization on behalf of the Christian religion."
In a 2009 study of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Institute of Global Engagement stated that the United States' international religious freedom policy was problematic in that it "has focused more on rhetorical denunciations of persecutors and releasing religious prisoners than on facilitating the political and cultural institutions necessary to religious freedom," and had therefore been ineffective. It further stated that USIRF policy was often perceived as an attack on religion, cultural imperialism, or a front for American missionaries. The report recommended that there be more attention to religious freedom in U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy in general, and that the USCIRF devote more attention to monitoring the integration of religious freedom issues into foreign policy.
In 2018, the Hindu American Foundation questioned the credibility of the commission after the appointment of Tony Perkins as a commissioner citing his past "hateful stances against non-Christians." The Southern Poverty Law Center also chastised Perkins for far-right Christian views, his anti-LGBT views, his associations with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, terming his evangelical organization, the Family Research Council, a "hate group."
- GPO Public Law 105 - 292 - International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Page accessed June 3, 2016
- GPO International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 text Page accessed June 3, 2016
- "Authorizing Legislation & Amendments". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. February 2008.
- Authorizing Legislation & Amendments, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed on-line June 4, 2010.
- "US religious freedom commission reauthorized at last minute". Catholic News Agency.
- "The International Religious Freedom Act: A Primer". Lawfare. January 10, 2018. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
- "H.R. 2431" (PDF). U.S. Department of State. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
- Cozad, Laurie (2005). "The United States' Imposition of Religious Freedom: The International Religious Freedom Act and India". India Review. 4 (1): 59–83. doi:10.1080/14736480590919617.
- "Commissioners". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. February 2008. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
- "Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, Vice Chair". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. May 17, 2016. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
- "USCIRF Welcomes Appointment of Anurima Bhargava by Leader Pelosi". U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. December 13, 2018. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
- "US Senate approves rabbi as freedom of faith envoy", The Times of Israel, December 15, 2014. Retrieved December 15, 2014.
- "Former Commissioners". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. April 11, 2008.
- "Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, Commissioner". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. December 8, 2016. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
- "US re-designates Pakistan, China as countries of particular concern on religious freedom". The Economic Times. December 20, 2019.
- Sandeep B. (August 19, 2009). "Surpassing Goebbels". The Pioneer. Retrieved October 8, 2010.
- "Orissa: Christian leaders disagree with US panel's report". Rediff. August 14, 2009. Retrieved October 8, 2010. Babu Thomas (August 17, 2009). "Orissa Christians reject USCIRF report, defends 'secular' India". Christianity Today. Retrieved October 8, 2010.
- "Hindu American Foundation slams USCIRF over anti-India report". Press Trust of India. February 14, 2017. Retrieved September 20, 2020 – via The Indian Express.
- United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2019 Annual Report (PDF). 2019. p. 181. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
- "Conversion lobby, christian, evangelists, FCRA crackdown, FCRA, foreign fund - Organiser".
- [dead link]
- "US commission faces closed doors" Archived November 27, 2003, at the Wayback Machine, Omayma Abdel-Latif, Al-Ahram Weekly, March 22–28, 2001, #526. Accessed on line June 12, 2010.
- "Egypt: Religious Freedom Delegation Gets Cold Shoulder", Kees Hulsman, Christianity Today, May 21, 2001. Accessed on line June 12, 2010.
- "Speaking Out: The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness". Christianity Today. Retrieved August 19, 2009.
- "Speaking Out: USCIRF's Concern Is To Help All Religious Freedom Victims". Christianity Today. November 1, 2002. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
- Smith, Philip, Center for Public Policy Analysis (or Centre for Public Policy Analysis), (10 December 2004), Washington, D.C. [permanent dead link]
- S. Frederick Starr, Brenda Shaffer, and Svante Cornell (August 24, 2017). "How the U.S. Promotes Extremism in the Name of Religious Freedom". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved December 14, 2018.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
- Statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan on the US Human Rights Report
- Boorstein, Michelle (February 17, 2010). "Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- Hackett, Rosalind; Silk, Mark; Hoover, Dennis (2000). "Religious Persecution as a U.S. Policy Issue" (PDF). Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. Harford: 56. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 4, 2016. Retrieved June 11, 2015.
- Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover. "The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy (Special Report)". Archived from the original on December 14, 2009. Retrieved August 19, 2009.
- "Appointment of Far-Right Evangelist Tony Perkins Strains Credibility of USCIRF". Hindu American Foundation. May 16, 2018. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
- "Tony Perkins". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
- Stahnke, Tad. A Paradox of Independence: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Review of Faith and International Affairs 6.2 (2008). Print.
- Farr, Thomas, Richard W. Garnett, Jeremy Gunn, and William Saunders (2009). "Religious Liberties: the International Religious Freedom Act". Houston Journal of International Law. 31 (3): 469–514.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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