US religious freedom commission granted brief extension

.- A federal commission that advocates for religious freedom around the world has been given a four-week reprieve from closing its doors on Nov. 18.

Funding for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was included in a “minibus” spending bill to fund the federal government through Dec. 16, amid continuing budget-reducing negotiations.

The bill was approved by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Nov. 17 and signed into law the next day by President Barack Obama.

Originally set to expire at the end of September, funding for the commission had already been extended through Nov. 18. At that date, the commission would have come to an end if Congress had not approved continued funding for another four weeks.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom now hopes for a Senate vote on a separate reauthorization bill to prevent it from going out of existence on Dec. 16.

In September, the House of Representatives voted 391 to 21 to approve a bill that would extend funding of the commission for two more years.

However, the process came to a halt in the Senate when a single anonymous senator reportedly placed a “hold” on the bill, preventing it from coming to a vote. The reasons for the hold were not disclosed.  

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was originally created by Congress in 1998 to promote religious freedom by calling attention to religious persecution in countries around the world.

The independent, bipartisan commission advises the president, Congress and the State Department on the status of religious freedom overseas.

It presents an annual report on religious freedom around the world and recommends the designation of “countries of particular concern” for nations that tolerate “particularly severe” violations of religious liberty.

The U.S. bishops, observing the importance of religious freedom as a foundation for other human rights, have urged the Senate to reauthorize the commission.

Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., chair of the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, called in an Oct. 27 letter for the work of the commission to be continued.

“Ongoing attacks against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East and in other parts of the world point to the need to pay more, not less, attention to religious freedom,” he said.

Abolishing the commission, Bishop Hubbard argued, would send the unintended message “that the United States is not committed to the protection of religious liberty.”

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