United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a 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 rooted in the U.S. Evangelical movement and its original intention was to protect Christians around the world. Such organisations as Christian Solidarity International, International Christian Concern, Open Doors and the Cardinal Kung Foundation as well as the lawyer Michael Horowitz were influences for the foundation of the International Religious Freedom Act.
It was authorized by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which established:
- 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 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.
Duties and responsibilities
The Commission on International Religious Freedom issues an annual report every May 1. The report responds to a report issued by the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom the prior fall that names countries that have severely violated religious freedom and is intended to critique and expand on the State Department report.
- 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, but are provided a travel budget and a 15-member staff. Appointments last for two years, and Commissioners are eligible for reappointment.
- Dr. Robert P. George, (chair). Also, Professor at Princeton University.
- Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, (vice chair). Also, President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
- Dr. James J. Zogby, (vice chair). Also, President of Arab American Institute.
- 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.
- Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, (commissioner). Also, President of Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
The State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom serves as an ex officio, non-voting member of the Commission. As of 2014 the ambassador was David Saperstein.
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, Felice D. Gaer, Azizah Y. al-Hibri, Leonard Leo, and Richard Land of Southern Baptist Convention.
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. 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
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.
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."
According to the National Council of Churches, "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 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 2005, then Commissioner, Richard Land authored Imagine! A God Blessed America: What It Would Look Like and How It Could Happen. In the book, he wrote that Hindu culture/tradition is "Superstitious" and "Cruel".
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