By Tom Strode, Baptist Press
WASHINGTON (BP) – Oppressed Christians and other religious adherents around the world stand to benefit from recent actions by the United States government.
The House of Representatives approved reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in a voice vote Oct. 6. The Senate passed the same legislation without opposition Sept. 30. The measure, awaiting President Obama’s signature, will extend the authority of a bipartisan panel that serves as a watchdog on global religious liberty conditions.
Congressional action to renew USCIRF’s mission came shortly after Obama selected one of the commission’s own staffers as the first special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia. David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, announced the appointment of Knox Thames to the new post Sept. 16. Thames, formerly USCIRF’s director of policy and research, began work in the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom Sept. 28.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), applauded both developments.
He expressed gratitude Congress “acted in the best interest of Americans and millions of other people around the world by reauthorizing [USCIRF], which plays a crucial role in standing up for soul freedom against tyranny around the world.”
In written comments for Baptist Press, Moore described Thames as “an excellent choice to serve as a special advisor for religious minorities in some of the most oppressive regions in the world. His stalwart commitment to religious freedom and years of experience both on the field and in crafting policy will help play a crucial part in defending religious freedom in countries where there might otherwise be little or no advocacy for it.”
The road to congressional reauthorization of USCIRF proved rocky. The international religious freedom community supported bills sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R.-Fla., and Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., that would not only have renewed USCIRF’s authority but strengthened it. The Rubio and Smith measures included provisions calling for expanding the designation of severe violators of religious liberty to include non-government, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Near East and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Congress finally approved a compromise but one that accomplished its main purpose — keeping USCIRF’s doors open. It appeared in late September the commission might have to shut down, at least temporarily. Its authorization was to end Sept. 30, but Congress managed to extend USCIRF’s life by including it in a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating. A continuing resolution is a short-term funding measure.
The newly approved reauthorization is for four years, a fact Rubio highlighted after the Senate vote. The four-year authorization will enable USCIRF “to focus, without distraction, on their critical mandate at precisely the time it’s most needed,” he said in a written statement.
“Attacks on houses of worship, imprisonment and even death are daily realities for people of faith around the world,” Rubio said. “This is especially true for religious minorities in the Middle East who are facing a genocidal onslaught.
USCIRF “has been a steadfast champion of this ‘first freedom’ and a reliable voice for the oppressed and marginalized,” he said.
Moore commended Rubio’s efforts, saying USCIRF reauthorization “would never have been possible if not for the longstanding and valiant leadership” of the senator.
The post now filled by Thames remained vacant for 13 months after the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act became law in August 2014. Moore joined a diverse coalition of religious liberty advocates in an April letter urging Obama to make an appointment for the position.
Thames’ responsibilities as special advisor include monitoring religious freedom conditions in the Near East — also known as the Middle East — and South/Central Asia, and recommending responses by Washington to violations of religious rights.
Repression or persecution of religious adherents in recent years has continued or increased in such countries as Iraq, Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Afghanistan. Among the religious communities victimized by ISIS and other Islamic extremists in particular are Christians, Yazidis in Iraq, Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan and Baha’is in Iran. The existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some countries, such as Iraq and Egypt.
Moore also joined the International Religious Freedom Roundtable (IRFR) in August to call for congressional reauthorization of USCIRF. Moore and his allies said USCIRF “has been vital to elevating the promotion of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy.”
USCIRF, a nine-member panel, came into existence in 1998 upon the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act. Evangelicals helped lead the effort to gain passage of the legislation after the widespread persecution of Christians and other religious adherents overseas gained attention in the mid-1990s.
The commission makes an annual report on global religious freedom, as well as periodic reports on particular countries. In its yearly report, USCIRF includes recommendations of governments it believes the State Department should designate as “countries of particular concern,” a label reserved for the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom.
While conditions have improved in some countries through the efforts of USCIRF and the federal government, about 77 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of religious restriction, according to the Pew Research Center.