Citing ‘global crisis,’ advocates urge Congress to fund religious freedom agency

Thomas Farr CNA US Catholic News 6 3 11 Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Catholics and other advocates are urging Congress and the White House not to let partisan politics to put an end to the vital work of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“The reality is that there’s a global crisis in religious freedom,” said Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

“Congress is being irresponsible and so is the administration,” Farr told CNA on Oct. 18.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by Congress in 1998.

With funding set to expire at the end of September, the House of Representatives on Sept. 15 voted overwhelmingly, 391-21, to fund the agency for two more years.

However, according to press reports, a single unknown senator has put a “hold” on the bill, preventing it from coming to a vote in the Senate. The anonymous senator is not disclosing any reason for his actions.

Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, said  that if the “secret hold” is not lifted by Nov. 18, the Senate will not be able to act, and the commission will come to an end.

Shea has served as one of the commissioners for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom since 1999.

In an Oct. 17 article for the National Review Online, Shea described the commission as “a bold voice within the government” and pointed to its successful advocacy for religious minorities in countries including Sudan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Shea said that the commission’s “biggest contribution may simply be representing in the darkest, most closed corners of the world America’s bedrock belief – the individual’s inalienable right to religious freedom.”

Farr believes that the situation is also clearly a humanitarian problem, given that tens of millions of people are “subject to violent persecution because of their religious beliefs or those of their tormentors.”

Farr, who served as the first director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2003, added that there was also a beneficial “strategic dimension” to America’s religious freedom policy.

He explained “that to promote religious freedom is to help democracies consolidate. And to promote religious freedom is to undermine religion-based terrorism.”

“So on both of those accounts – humanitarian and strategic – this is precisely the wrong time in history to allow the commission to be disbanded, or in fact, to disband it,” he said.

Farr also observed that attempts to weaken the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have already taken place.

He noted that the bill to reauthorize the commission originally included amendments to the International Religious Freedom Act that would have “forced the State Department to pay more attention to this issue.”

“Those amendments have been stripped from the bill,” he stated.

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Farr explained that one of the amendments that has been removed would have moved the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom to the office of the Secretary of State, “which is where, historically, all other ambassadors-at-large have been.”

He said that this move would have shown the government’s commitment to the issue of religious freedom across the globe.

Farr attributed the opposition to extending the life of the commission to “absolute indifference to the crisis which is going on in the world.”

“I can think of no other explanation for it,” he said.

“Congress could reauthorize the commission and compel the Obama administration to take this issue seriously. Congress is doing neither.”

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