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Clashing visions threaten religious liberty panel renewal

Published: Friday, Aug. 15 2014 5:45 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 16 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

AdamParent, Getty Images/iStockphoto

WASHINGTON — Competing versions of legislation to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom threaten the independent panel's autonomy and mission, some commission supporters say.

But the lawmaker who advocates change at USCIRF cites duplication of efforts and a lack of cooperation with the State Department as reasons for introducing a Senate bill that would make significant changes to how the commission is authorized and operates.

"I am concerned that the lack of coordination between the State Department and USCIRF may undermine our government's efforts to promote international religious freedom by sending mixed messages to foreign governments and human-rights activists who are fighting to defend religious freedom in their countries," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who introduced a Senate measure, S2711, on July 30.

However, if legislation is not agreed upon by Sept. 30, the 15-year-old panel could shut down, at least until an authorization is enacted and signed by President Obama.

"Congress needs to act to extend the life of the commission," said Katrina Lantos Swett, commission chairwoman. She applauded support in the House, where a reauthorization bill preserves the status quo, and added "I look forward to similarly strong and bipartisan support when the Senate addresses reauthorization."

The commission was established under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, along with the parallel role of a U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department. For years, the two sides have been in contention at times, disappointing some religious liberty advocates. A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office noted times when lack of coordination between the commission and the State Department resulted in strained relations with Turkey, Laos and Vietnam.

And USCIRF leadership had come under fire for allegedly "lavish travel arrangements," something Durbin said had been clarified in the 2011 reauthorization bill. However, the panel suffered an embezzlement loss of $217,000 by Carmelita Hines, a former office operations manager, Durbin said.

Commission valued

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said via email, "While the White House has not reviewed the (Senate) legislation, we support the Commission on International Religious Freedom."

The commission's work in calling attention to global victims of religious persecution is noticed worldwide, said Michael Cromartie, a vice president at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served on the panel for six years, including two terms as chairman.

"When I visited some of the countries, I found that many of the people we met with were deeply grateful we were shining a light on their countries," Cromartie said. "The people suffering at the hands of their persecutors know about our work and were grateful" for the Americans' interest, he added.

Conversely, officials of nations identified as "Countries of Particular Concern" by USCIRF in its annual report on religious freedom "weren't happy," Cromartie added.

"I actually found that both the prisoners and government officials were more aware than your average American would be, and those are the ones we were trying to help anyway," he said.

Proposed 'reforms'

On July 8, the House passed a five-year reauthorization bill, HR4653, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolff, R-Virginia, which had 22 Democrats and 19 Republicans as co-sponsors. The House bill offered minor adjustments to USCIRF's original authorizing legislation, along with the extended reauthorization period. In 2011, Congress reauthorized USCIRF for a three-year term.

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