U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Awaiting Reauthorization by Congress

USCIRF commissioners Tony Perkins, from left, Anurima Bhargava, guests Andrew and Norine Brunson, Nadine Maenza and Gayle Manchin in Washington on Feb. 6, 2019. Photo courtesy of USCIRF

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose funding runs out on Saturday (Dec. 21), could be reauthorized by week’s end if Congress passes an omnibus bill that includes a section recommending it stay in business.

Since its creation in 1998, the independent agency has drawn attention to repression of religious minorities across the globe and issued an annual report about the most egregious violators of religious liberty.

Recently, the organization has faced questions about travel by commissioners and has had two members step down.

The agency’s funding — a proposed $3.5 million annually through 2022 — is part of a massive bill to finance the federal government’s operations now being considered by Congress. That funding had been in jeopardy after a bipartisan panel had proposed new requirements for reporting of travel by commissioners of the watchdog group.

USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins told Religion News Service that the commissioners are satisfied with the current proposed language. He said all of them considered the earlier proposal to be “very problematic” and an attempt “to micromanage the commission.”

He and Vice Chair Gayle Manchin spent several weeks advocating for differently worded legislation.

Perkins is now hopeful USCIRF will carry on.

“I think we finally got to a good place,” said Perkins. “As we’ve now established some clear objectives and goals, developed a solid strategic plan, we’ll be able to show Congress that we’re doing exactly what we were created to do 20 years ago.”

The 1,700-plus-page bill, including about a dozen pages about USCIRF, was approved by the House on Tuesday but must be adopted by the Senate and signed by President Donald Trump before it becomes law.

Controversy has been swirling around the commission in the months since a bipartisan group including Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made the proposal about the agency’s reauthorization. One commissioner resigned in November. In a separate development, another commissioner resigned Tuesday after the Justice Department announced he had been indicted.

Perkins said he was not aware of the resignation last month of Kristina Arriaga “until I read about it.”

Arriaga noted in a Wall Street Journal column that she and another commissioner helped draw attention to the case of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, now freed after being detained in Turkey for almost two years, “without mounds of reports and permission slips.” She later expressed concern that Congress would turn USCIRF “into a bureaucracy.”

Isaac Six, a former staffer at USCIRF who now works at Open Doors USA, responded to Arriaga in a letter to the Journal, claiming the former commissioner “mischaracterizes” the reauthorization effort. He said the proposed attempts at increasing transparency and accountability “might marginally increase commissioners’ workloads.”

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Source: Religion News Service