Kristina Arriaga on Why Turning the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Into a Federal Bureaucracy Will Cause Its Death

In this Aug. 22, 2018, photo, a Rohingya refugee bathes, as a girl waits to fill water from a hand pump at Kutupalong refugee camp, a ramshackle sprawl of camps built amid low rolling hills and endless monsoon-season mud, in Bangladesh. First built more than 20 years ago by earlier, smaller waves of Rohingya Muslim refugees, the camps in Cox’s Bazar district exploded in size when Myanmar’s army launched attacks around Aug. 25, 2017, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims began flooding across the border. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Kristina Arriaga, a USCIRF commissioner from 2016-19, has worked on religious freedom issues for more than 25 years. A former executive director of Becket Law, she is currently a founding partner at Intrinsic Consulting. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.


In the next few days, Congress will decide the fate of the world’s only independent religious freedom government agency. Specifically, it will decide whether the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, known as USCIRF, changes its mission, remains “as is” or disappears altogether.

It should do none of the above. Instead, Congress should restore USCIRF to the apolitical, independent and disruptive agency its architects designed it to be more than two decades ago and arm it with innovative mechanisms to face a new century marked by new threats to religious liberty. The 80% of the world population that lives in countries with religious restrictions — the Uighurs in China, the Christians in the Middle East, the Rohingya in Myanmar, to name a few — are counting on it.

The commission had an unlikely godfather, the Pulitzer Award-winning New York Times editor and columnist A.M. Rosenthal. Rosenthal, a liberal and secular Jew mostly known for having defied President Richard Nixon by publishing the then-classified Pentagon Papers, was deeply committed to freedom of conscience. In 1997 alone, Rosenthal wrote more than 20 columns alerting his readers to the persecution of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and other minorities.

Rosenthal was relentless. He criticized fellow journalists, the business community and the Clinton administration for not paying attention to worldwide religious persecution. In his last column of 1997, Rosenthal said that year had been “one of the most awakening” years in his lifetime, and he sharply criticized President Bill Clinton’s partnership with business leaders for bringing up what Rosenthal thought were “hypocritical” arguments against a new religious freedom bill that called for Americans to refuse “to be a silent witness” to persecution.

“Most shameful is that opposing persecution would just bring more,” wrote Rosenthal. “Once that was said about the Nazis. Ask the prisoners.”

Initially co-sponsored by two Republicans, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Arlen Specter, the legislation was modified and eventually championed by Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman. After unanimous passage in the Senate, the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 passed the House to become law in October of that year.

Designed to provide an “outside independent voice” and make substantive recommendations to Congress, the State Department and the White House, the act created USCIRF. The act also created an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, the only position of its kind in the world at the time, who would ensure diplomatic priority for international religious freedom, which had all too often played second fiddle to other human rights issues.

USCIRF was structured unconventionally. Unlike any other independent government agency, its nine commissioners are unpaid, part-time volunteers from the private sector. Appointed by Republicans and Democrats, they fight for each other’s issues not because they necessarily agree with each other, but because they understand that religious freedom is destroyed when used as an ideological or political weapon.

Fast-forward to 2019. The proposed reauthorization bill, introduced in early September, would have shackled the commissioners’ independence with bureaucratic “reforms” that would drastically increase congressional oversight. It also diluted their mission by tasking USCIRF with monitoring “the abuse of religion to justify human rights violations.”

To be sure, there are human rights violations perpetrated in the name of religion, such as female genital mutilation, the Islamic State group’s systemic enslavement of girls and women and the interpretation of hadiths in 13 countries to justify condemning LGBTQ+ people to death.

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Source: Religion News Service