Religious freedom no match for Washington gridlock?

US Commission for International Religious Freedom, created in 1998, will cease to exist Friday unless lawmakers renew funding. Its aim: make religious freedom a priority of US foreign policy.

Congress is poised to let the government commission that promotes international religious freedom die for lack of funding – even as concern rises about persecution of Christians in Egypt, marginalization of moderate Muslims in Pakistan, and repression of Buddhist monks in Myanmar (Burma).

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is preparing to go out of business at the end of the week after having watched various proposals for extending its funding come and go in recent months.

If no budget is voted by Friday, the commission established by Congress in 1998 to help make religious freedom a priority in US foreign policy will cease to exist.

The timing might seem odd, given the current presidential campaign in which international religious freedom – often an under-the-radar issue – is getting more that the usual attention. Republican Party caucuses and primaries are about to take place in states where the issue is more than an afterthought.

The commission, a model for other countries looking to safeguard religious freedom, is imperiled by disagreements about how the commission’s members are appointed, as well as Congress's general difficulty in approving any kind of spending measure.

“We have a key tool on our belt for addressing all the universal rights that we as Americans advocate, and we’d lose this special tool for advocating religious freedom without USCIRF,” says John Pinna, head of government relations for the American Islamic Congress, a member of a coalition of faith organizations urging the commission’s reauthorization.

Squabbles over the number of commissioners, who appoints them, and how the commission comes up with its annual “watch list” of countries violating religious freedoms have all contributed to the commission's precarious position.

Most recently, Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois stalled commission reauthorization by attaching the issue in the Senate to approval of funding for a new prison in Illinois.

USCIRF is governed by nine commissioners, appointed equally by the House, the Senate, and the White House. The House measure to reauthorize the commission, which passed easily, would cut the number of commissioners to five – eliminating mostly White House appointments. The White House objects to that provision.

“It’s been a tough year for legislation in general. I think everyone’s aware of that,” Mr. Pinna says, “and to a certain extent USCIRF got caught in that.”

A commission advocating religious freedom was originally envisioned by some members of Congress as a way to promote the protection of Christianity in increasingly hostile corners of the world. But by the time USCIRF was created in 1998, its mandate was to promote the freedom of practice of all faiths – and to make religious freedom a priority of US foreign policy.

The commission has helped to draw attention to the plight of religious minorities (including Christians) in Sudan, while its annual watch list of rights-violating countries draws unwanted attention to places that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Some critics have said that, if anything, the commission tends to focus on the abuse of poor and developing countries while overlooking problems in Western countries that, as their populations diversify, also have issues with religious freedom.

But supporters say such criticisms do not outweigh the commission’s value. “With this commission, the US has an independent third-party assessor that focuses on this single issue and can point out problem areas and suggest approaches and policy positions,” Pinna says. “That’s not something either the State Department or the White House is able to do.”

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