Religious freedom in worldwide decline as U.S. intervention wavers

Published: Friday, Oct. 7 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

Saint Istvan statue in Budapest, Hungary, where religious freedom is under attack.

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On Wednesday, a Washington Times editorial recounted the self-immolation of two 18-year-old Tibetan monks who, as they set themselves on fire, reportedly said, "Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama; we need religious freedom immediately."

As the editorial noted, this sobering incident occurred on Sept. 26th — the same day Congress temporarily averted a government shutdown and the subsequent disassemblage of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) by passing a continuing resolution that maintains funding for federal operations until Nov. 18th.

USCIRF was originally created by Congress in 1998 to observe religious freedom issues across the globe and lend advice about, among other things, how the State Department can solve religious oppression around the world.

As the date of Nov. 18th nears, USCIRF could once again be facing its potential demise — an event that would be a devastating blow to religious freedom fighters, especially during a time when religious liberty is on the decline around the world, even in Westernized nations like Hungary.

"It is hard to tell at this point exactly what will happen as the political process unfolds," said Cole Durham, the director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University. "It would be unfortunate to lose the commission's role — the commission has been an important part of the overall system with the International Religious Freedom Act."

In September, the House of Representatives felt similarly when it voted 391-21 to continue funding the commission for another two years.

Despite passing the House, the bill is currently blocked in the Senate by an anonymous hold.

"It is true that there is a hold on the bill and it is from an anonymous Democrat," said Leonard A. Leo, chairman of USCIRF and executive vice president of the Federalist Society. "There was a Republican hold on it but that has been lifted. I can't imagine that the Democrats want to be responsible for killing a commission that preserves religious freedom around the world, especially before an election year."

Leo went on to say that the commission is increasingly important during a time when religious freedom is so vital to U.S. foreign relations.

"The irony," he said, "is that when the rest of the world is worried about religious freedom issues; when Canada, Germany and the Netherlands are all trying to mimic what the U.S. is doing, we might lose our commission because of a Democratic hold."

With the fate of USCIRF hanging in the balance, the people of the world face what Durham calls a global erosion of religious freedom.

"It is not a frontal attack, it is erosion by exception." Durham said. "Countries aren't saying we shouldn't have religious freedom altogether. They are saying, 'Well, of course we should have religious freedom, but …,' and then they list exceptions."

Among the most problematic cases according to Durham is last week's legislation passed in Kazakhstan that will reportedly impose a requirement of 5,000 members in order for religious groups to be officially recognized by the state. The law also stipulates that all religious literature be reviewed by the government in addition to stiff registration on missionaries.

Similarly troubling is recent legislation passed in Hungary.

"The Hungary legislation is problematic because it is really surprising." Durham said. "Hungary has become a really European country. So the new law has been very surprising."

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