"While we focus on extinguishing the flames of sectarian conflict and oppression in countries like these, we cannot ignore the less-physical deeply religious freedom violations in our own backyard," said Leonard Leo, who served as the USCIRF chair from 2009 - 2012.
"To maintain our standing in the world as a beacon against oppression, we also must put our own house in order by addressing subtler forms of coercion," continued Leo.
George told CNA after the panel that the U.S. currently faces serious religious freedom challenges.
"Catholics now are in many cases victims of discrimination from the forces of secular progressiveness in our own country," said George. "You see efforts to try to coerce Catholics and other pro-life physicians into performing abortions or to shut-down Catholic adoption agencies because they insist on places children with a mom and a dad. Or closing Catholic hospitals because they won't perform abortions. These are serious violations of conscience."
The current USCIRF chairman, Daniel Mark, is a political science professor at Villanova University. Mark told CNA he is encouraged that the world is "increasingly coming to understand the critical role that religious freedom plays in peace, stability, and prosperity."
"It is such a foundational freedom," said Mark. "We see that religious freedom, perhaps more than anything else, is the right that people are most willing to suffer and die for."
He continued, "There is always the argument that we need to start with democracy and then build toward human rights. We've seen some cases, like Burma, where that hasn't really worked. Maybe it turns out that the direction is the other way … that we need to start by pushing in these countries the core human rights, and from there, the right kind of culture and the right kind of governance will develop."