United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act 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. It is funded entirely by the federal government on an annual basis and its staff members are government employees.
As of February 2015, the Commissioners are:
- Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, (chair). Also, President of Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
- Dr. Robert P. George, (vice chair). Also, Professor at Princeton University. George is a past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group opposed to same-sex marriage. He drafted the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto signed by Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical leaders.
- Dr. James J. Zogby, (vice chair). Also, President of Arab American Institute.
- Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, (commissioner). Also, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
- Prof. Mary Ann Glendon, (commissioner). Also, Professor at Harvard Law School.
- Dean Eric P. Schwartz, (commissioner). Also, Dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
- Dr. Daniel I. Mark, (commissioner). Also, Professor at Villanova University.
- Rev. Thomas J. Reese, (commissioner). Also, Senior Analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
- Hannah Rosenthal, (commissioner). Also, President of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
The State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom serves as an ex officio, non-voting member of the Commission. Past Commissioners include 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, and Richard Land of Southern Baptist Convention.
The legislation authorizing the USCIRF had 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 secretly placed on the former version of the bill; he released it 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 the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, Congress created three mechanisms in order to advance universal human rights:
- 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.
On May 9, 2014, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R, VA-10) introduced the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4653; 113th Congress) that would amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as an independent federal government advisory body through FY2019.
Duties and responsibilities
USCIRF researches and monitors international religious freedom issues. The Commission is authorized to travel on fact-finding missions to other countries; Consult and meet various entities like officials of foreign governments, religious groups, human rights group, policy experts etc.; Hold public hearings, and issue reports as well other public statements; Participate in U.S. delegations to international meetings and conferences as well as train Foreign Service Officers and other U.S. officials.
The Commission on International Religious Freedom issues an annual report every May 1. The annual report describes conditions for freedom of religious or belief in countries of concern to the Commission and provides policy recommendations to ensure that the promotion of freedom of religious belief becomes a more integral part of U.S. foreign policy. The report contains chapters on countries the Commission had recommended for designation as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) for severe violations of religious freedom; countries the Commission has placed on a "watch list" for violations of religious freedom that do not meet the CPC threshold but require attention; and other countries USCIRF is monitoring closely. The annual report also includes chapters on U.S. policy on expedited removal and multilateral organizations.
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 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 (Stanke, 48). Appointments last for two years, and Commissioners are eligible for reappointment.
The effect of the various appointing authorities is for the Commission to be bipartisan in character. The position of the Chair rotates from year to year from an appointee of one party to the appointee of the other.
USCIRF has placed India on CPC and watch list in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 primarily because of communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat and Mumbai, Kandha-Tribals and Panna-Christians in Odisha, and anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.
USICRF report drew 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. An analysis of USCIRF 2014 report criticizes USCIRF for promoting religious discord between Hindus and Buddhist, white-wash terror acts, and falsely blaming a Monk for Bodh Gaya bombings 
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.
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.
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 highlights the Commission’s decision to designate Laos a Country of Particular Concern in 2002 despite release of religious prisoners. Of the USCIRF 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.
Christian bias and other issues
Despite appointing Muslim commissioners, The Commission has also been accused of being biased towards focusing on the persecution of Christians, and of being anti-Muslim. A former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, has 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.
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.
the policy will promote the cause of Christians to the exclusion of persecuted believers of other religions.
In a 2009 study of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Institite 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 U.S. IRF 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.
- Commissioners, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed online February 17, 2015.
- Authorizing Legislation & Amendments, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed on-line June 4, 2010.
- "H.R. 4653 - Summary". United States Congress. Retrieved 7 July 2014.
- Sandeep B. (August 19, 2009). "Surpassing Goebbels". The Pioneer. Retrieved October 8, 2010.
- "Analysis of the USCIRF India Chapter report, 2014".
- "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.
- "US commission faces closed doors", 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. http://www.centreforpublicpolicyanalyis.org
- Boorstein, Michelle (February 17, 2010). "Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hertzke, Allen D.; Philpott, Daniel (2000). "Defending the Faiths". The National Interest 61: 80.
- Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover. "The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy (Special Report)". Retrieved August 19, 2009.
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 Garnett, Jeremy Gunn, and William Saunders. Religious Liberties: the International Religious Freedom Act. Houston Journal of International law, 2009. Print.
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