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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Fighting for rights: Muslims join the battle for international religious freedom

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 6:53 p.m. MDT

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It was a quiet Friday morning in the U.S. House chambers, with so many empty seats it looked like Congress had already adjourned for the year. But on Dec. 16, the day federal funding for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom was set to expire, a small group of representatives stood and told their few colleagues in attendance why the commission, which tracks religious persecution abroad, should be reauthorized.

"The Coptic Christians are going through a very difficult time," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. "The Iraqi Christians are being killed. In Tibet, the Buddhists are setting themselves aflame because of persecution. … The Christians in Sudan, in the Blue Nile area, are going through genocide and are being killed because of their faith."

USCIRF, a bipartisan group that monitors religious oppression worldwide and makes suggestions to the White House and Congress on how to respond, is "a beacon of hope" for those areas, Wolf said. And without much ado, despite having delayed the decision to the eleventh hour, the commission was renewed and spared for three more years.

Notwithstanding the empty room, organizations across the country were watching closely to see what happened that day. The commission, organized in 1998 to ensure that religious freedom circumferences the globe, had already started packing their boxes the week before. Their uncertain future didn't have anything to do with their mission — they were caught in a political power play — but still, religious groups across America took the commission's vulnerability as a sign that Congress might no longer value religious freedom abroad.

The implication that freedom of religion might no longer be a priority for the U.S. government was alarming, especially for the American Islamic Congress, a group that subsequently launched an all-out effort to preserve the commission.

Despite criticism in the media that USCIRF had a bias toward rectifying Christian persecution, AIC, a Muslim-American advocacy group, spearheaded a campaign to save it. They wrote letters to the White House, gathered media coverage and lobbied House representatives until they were assured that the commission would be renewed. It was a crusade of dire importance, in AIC's view, one the group wages every day.

"We are dedicated to people from all different faiths to help them guarantee their rights," said Zainab Al-Suwaij, AIC co-founder and executive director. "As a Muslim organization, we are very proud to be working on such a critical issue."

The AIC is one example of the involvement Muslims have in fighting for international religious freedom, but the endeavor doesn't stop with them.

Islam-majority countries have a speckled past when it comes to insuring religious freedom by rule of law, but influential Muslim voices from countries like Egypt, Bosnia and Indonesia are yet rising to call for change, with more modern interpretations of Islamic law that support religious freedom for all. As impacts from the Arab Spring unfold, those voices are in some ways now louder and more poised for influence than ever.

USCIRF guides U.S. responses to religious persecution, and groups like AIC make headway advocating for freedom and creating a better understanding of Islam, but the voices in Muslim-majority countries are the key to creating environments where religious freedom is assured, experts say. For a real, lasting change to occur in Islam, academics say it must come from within.

Unexpected advocates

John Pinna spends his days at AIC in Washington, D.C., working on public policy and advocating for civil rights and religious freedom. But whenever he tells people the nature of his work, and that it is for a Muslim organization, everyone is always surprised.

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