Bishops urge funding for religious freedom commission

The chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace is calling on the U.S. Senate to reauthorize a federal commission that advocates for religious freedom across the globe.

“Today the mission of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is more important than ever,” said Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y.

“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.”

In an Oct. 27 letter, Bishop Hubbard urged the timely passage of a bill to renew funding for the independent, bipartisan commission, which he called “a critically important tool in the preservation of religious freedom.”

Funding for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was originally set to expire at the end of September, but a brief extension was granted through the middle of November.

The House of Representatives approved a bill to fund the agency for an additional two years by a vote of 391 to 21.

But the prospects of the bill being voted on in the Senate appear to be in the hands of a single anonymous senator who has put a “hold” on the bill. That action is preventing a vote, and the reasons for the hold remain unknown.

If the hold is not removed by Nov. 18, the Senate will be unable to vote on the bill, and the commission will close its doors.

In his letter, Bishop Hubbard emphasized the important role that the commission has played in “preserving human dignity and human rights around the globe by monitoring and promoting religious freedom.”

He explained that the commission “monitors the status of religious freedom and provides essential information concerning persecution and violations of human rights throughout the world.”

“In addition, it plays a significant role is raising the profile of religious freedom around the globe,” he said.

Bishop Hubbard pointed to violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the Christmas Eve bombings of Nigerian Christian churches and an attack on worshipers at a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad last October as “grim reminders of what is at stake.”

Religious freedom, which is rooted in human dignity, is foundational for human rights and a just society, he said.

The bishop recalled that Pope Benedict XVI focused his 2011 World Day of Peace message on religious freedom, which he called the “path to peace.”

“The Catholic Church has long raised concerns regarding religious liberty throughout the world, defending members of all religions,” he said.

The bishops’ conference was “deeply involved” in the process that led to the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said Bishop Hubbard.

While the conference “does not have a position on every provision in the legislation,” Bishop Hubbard said the bishops “strongly support” bringing the bill to a vote on the Senate floor.

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“Abolition of this body would send an unintended message to the rest of the world,” he said.

“Oppressive groups may come to believe that the United States is not committed to the protection of religious liberty.”

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