United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

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United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Seal of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.svg
Agency overview
FormedOctober 28, 1998; 23 years ago (1998-10-28)
HeadquartersWashington, D.C.
Agency executive
  • Erin D. Singshinsuk, Executive Director

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.

The USCIRF has been criticized for its alleged pro-Christian stance.[citation needed]


Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (2008)

USCIRF was authorized by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which established:[1][2]

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 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.[4][5]

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.[6]

Duties and responsibilities[edit]

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.[2]

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.[7]


The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 provides for the Commission to be composed of ten members:[8]

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 November 16, 2021,[9] the current Commissioners are:

Commissioner Appointed By Term expires Details
Nadine Maenza (Chair) Donald Trump May 2022 President, Patriot Voices; Board of Directors, Institute for Global Engagement[10]
Nury Turkel (Vice Chair) Nancy Pelosi May 2022 Chairman of the Board, Uyghur Human Rights Project; former president, Uyghur American Association[11]
Anurima Bhargava Nancy Pelosi May 2022 President, Anthem of Us; former chief, Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice[12]
James W. Carr Kevin McCarthy May 2022 President and Chairman, Highland Home Holdings; former Executive Vice President and Professor of Business, Harding University[13]
Frederick A. Davie Chuck Schumer May 2022 Executive Vice President, Union Theological Seminary[14]
Khizr Khan Joe Biden May 2022 Founder, Constitutional Literacy and National Unity Center[15]
Sharon Kleinbaum Joe Biden May 2023 Spiritual leader, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; Commissioner, New York City Commission on Human Rights[16]
Tony Perkins Mitch McConnell May 2022 President, Family Research Council[17]

The State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom serves as an ex officio, non-voting member of the Commission.[8] Sam Brownback served as ambassador from 2017 to 2021.

Past Commissioners include David Saperstein,[18] Preeta D. Bansal, Gayle Conelly Manchin (Chair),[19] Gary Bauer, 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,[20] Tenzin Dorjee (Chair),[21] and Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz.


In December 2019, the United States placed China, Eritrea, Pakistan, 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.[22]


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, a Hindu cleric and social activist.[23]

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.[24]

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."[25]

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.[26][27]

USCIRF has been accused[28] of being influenced by US based Islamist groups Indian American Muslim Council-IAMC & Islamic Circle Of North America (ICNA). These organisations under the guidance of Shaik Ubaid of IAMC have managed to influence the USCIRF through its Commissioner Nadine Maenza. They have taken help of US lobbying firm Fidelis Government Relations (FGR).


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".[29] 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.[30]


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 the 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."[31]

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.[32]

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.[33]

Central Asia[edit]

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.[34]

Tajikistan Foreign Ministry criticized the USCIRF report on March 13, 2020. Tajikistan called on the U.S. Department of State to refrain from publishing unverified and groundless information unrelated to the actual situation with the rule of law and respect of human rights in Tajikistan.[35]


Accusations of Christian bias and other issues[edit]

The Commission has been accused of being biased towards focusing on the persecution of Christians and of being anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu. 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.[36]

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."[37]

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.[38]

In 2018, the appointment of Tony Perkins as a commissioner received criticism.[39] The organizations such as GLAAD, Hindu American Foundation and others questioned the credibility of Perkins citing his stance against non-Christians and LGBT.[40] 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".[41]



  1. ^ GPO Public Law 105 - 292 - International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Page accessed June 3, 2016
  2. ^ a b GPO International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 text Page accessed June 3, 2016
  3. ^ "Authorizing Legislation & Amendments". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. February 2008.
  4. ^ Authorizing Legislation & Amendments, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Accessed on-line June 4, 2010.
  5. ^ "US religious freedom commission reauthorized at last minute". Catholic News Agency.
  6. ^ "The International Religious Freedom Act: A Primer". Lawfare. January 10, 2018. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  7. ^ "H.R. 2431" (PDF). U.S. Department of State. Retrieved November 16, 2018.
  8. ^ a b 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. S2CID 153774347.
  9. ^ "Commissioners: Advocates for Religious Freedom | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ "Nadine Maenza | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  11. ^ "Nury Turkel | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ "Anurima Bhargava | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  13. ^ "James W. Carr | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ "Frederick A. Davie | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  15. ^ "Khizr Khan | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  16. ^ "Sharon Kleinbaum | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  17. ^ "Tony Perkins | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  18. ^ "US Senate approves rabbi as freedom of faith envoy", The Times of Israel, December 15, 2014. Retrieved December 15, 2014.
  19. ^ "USCIRF Congratulates Outgoing Chair, Gayle Manchin, Welcomes New Chair, Anurima Bhargava | USCIRF". www.uscirf.gov. November 16, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  20. ^ "Former Commissioners". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. April 11, 2008.
  21. ^ "Dr. Tenzin Dorjee, Commissioner". United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. December 8, 2016. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  22. ^ "US re-designates Pakistan, China as countries of particular concern on religious freedom". The Economic Times. December 20, 2019.
  23. ^ Sandeep B. (August 19, 2009). "Surpassing Goebbels". The Pioneer. Retrieved October 8, 2010.
  24. ^ "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.
  25. ^ United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2019 Annual Report (PDF). 2019. p. 181. Retrieved May 9, 2019.
  26. ^ "Conversion lobby, Christian, Evangelists, FCRA crackdown, FCRA, foreign fund - Organiser".
  27. ^ [1][dead link]
  28. ^ "USCIRF : An Organization Of Particular Concern". The Disinfolab. April 21, 2021. Retrieved October 6, 2021.
  29. ^ "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.
  30. ^ "Egypt: Religious Freedom Delegation Gets Cold Shoulder", Kees Hulsman, Christianity Today, May 21, 2001. Accessed on line June 12, 2010.
  31. ^ "Speaking Out: The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness". Christianity Today. Retrieved August 19, 2009.
  32. ^ "Speaking Out: USCIRF's Concern Is To Help All Religious Freedom Victims". Christianity Today. November 1, 2002. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
  33. ^ Smith, Philip, Center for Public Policy Analysis (or Centre for Public Policy Analysis), (10 December 2004), Washington, D.C. [2][permanent dead link]
  34. ^ 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.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  35. ^ Statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan on the US Human Rights Report
  36. ^ Boorstein, Michelle (February 17, 2010). "Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 26, 2010.
  37. ^ 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.
  38. ^ 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.
  39. ^ "Longtime gay-rights opponent Tony Perkins named to U.S. religious freedom panel". NBC. May 17, 2018.
  40. ^ "Appointment of Far-Right Evangelist Tony Perkins Strains Credibility of USCIRF". Hindu American Foundation. May 16, 2018. Archived from the original on January 24, 2019. Retrieved January 24, 2019.
  41. ^ "Tony Perkins". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved January 24, 2019.

Further readings[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to United States Commission on International Religious Freedom at Wikimedia Commons