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 secretly 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 January 2019, the Commissioners were:
- Tenzin Dorjee (Chair). Also Professor at the Department of Human Communication Studies, California State University, Fullerton.
- 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.
- Andy Khawaja. Also CEO of e-commerce merchant services and online payment processing services provider Allied Wallet.
- 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.
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, and Richard Land. 
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 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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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 Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, terming his evangelical organization, the Family Research Council, a "hate group."
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