What you need to know about the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

August 31, 2015

Authorization for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is about to expire. Below are five basic things you need to know about USCIRF and why it matters:

1. USCIRF (pronounced ‘you-surf’ by policy wonks) is an independent, bipartisan government commission created as part of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). The intended purpose of IRFA is

“To express United States foreign policy with respect to, and to strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion; to authorize United States actions in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries;” (PDF)

When President Bill Clinton signed IRFA into law, unity on this issue was exceedingly bipartisan, with a 98-0 vote in the Senate and a 375-41 vote in the House.

2. USCIRF is tasked with many duties intended to promote freedom of religion and belief. The primary duty is to research and provide an annual report on the condition of global religious persecution, designed to advise the President and the State Department. One of the mechanisms included in the report is to recommend Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). A CPC is a country which either engages in or tolerates “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

Further, as part of this report USCIRF may make policy recommendations to Congress and the President in response to documented religious persecution. USCIRF commissioners and staff also to testify before Congress, provide briefings, and publish fact sheets about specific countries.

3. USCIRF is made up of nine volunteer commissioners, assisted by a nonpartisan staff. By law, the commissioners are appointed to two-year terms (renewable) according to this formula: three appointments by the President, two by congressional leaders of the President’s party, and four by the congressional leaders of the party not in the White House. The current chair of USCIRF, as elected by commissioner peers, is Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and recipient of the ERLC’s 2013 John Leland Religious Liberty Award.

4. USCIRF commissioners and staff travel around the world to witness evidence of persecution first hand. Recent travel has included the nations of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burma, Egypt, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Russia. Other travel included visits with Syrian refugees, and with people seeking asylum through U.S.-based detention centers.

5. USCIRF has launched a number of collaborative initiatives to build global consensus on the freedom of religion and belief. The Defending Freedoms Project provides the opportunity for members of Congress to adopt prisoners of conscience in order to raise awareness. This public “adoption” often leads to better treatment of the adopted prisoner even if they aren’t fully released. Adoptees include persecuted Christians like Saeed Abedini (Iran) and Asia Bibi (Pakistan). Check here to see if your elected representative has adopted a prisoner of conscience.

In Oslo, Norway last year, USCIRF initiated the first ever international coalition of parliamentarians to advance religious freedom. The next gathering of these parliamentarians, which will include participants from 50 countries, is scheduled for September 17-19, 2015, in New York City and will discuss Multinational Efforts to Strengthen Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Why does it matter?

The incidents of religious persecution continue at a massive scale around the globe, either by government restrictions, social hostilities or non-state actors. The extreme examples of the Islamic State in Iraq and Boko Haram in Africa are the tip of the iceberg of a global environment in which the Pew Research Center reports 76 percent of our fellow human beings “live in countries with a high or very high level of restrictions on religion.” Research continues to shows that religious freedom anywhere corresponds dramatically with a safer civil society, American national security and economic stability, among other measures of human flourishing.

The 1998 IRFA represents a high-water mark of American unity and bipartisan support to declare religious freedom a crucial component of a responsible and coherent foreign policy. By affirming and promoting the freedom of conscience for all faiths and of no faith, the U.S. government not only represents an American ideal, but testifies to a universal truth that enables human flourishing. USCIRF continues to play an important role in keeping this issue in front of the President, the State Department and Congress.

Current legislation

On September 30, 2015, USCIRF is scheduled to expire. Reauthorization requires both chambers of Congress and only ten legislative days remain before the commission expires. The Southern Baptist ERLC has joined multiple nonpartisan, multi-faith letters of support for reauthorization bills in both the House (H.R. 1150) and the Senate (S. 1798).

Consider contacting your elected officials to express your support for a robust and long-term reauthorization for USCIRF, especially to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wherein USCIRF faces its greatest hurdle.

Matthew T. Hawkins

Matthew T. Hawkins is a former policy director of the  ERLC. He is presently pursuing a Ph.D. in public theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and serves as chair of The One America Movement, a nonprofit that desires to build a united American society by eliminating toxic polarization. More information … Read More