Global religious freedom: Watchdog is threatened, and only religious media notice

It's a definite "Got news?" item when religious news outfits report the appeal of a major human rights watchdog to stay alive -- and almost no one else notices.

World magazine and Baptist Press this week wrote up a letter signed by 86 religious liberty advocate surging Congress to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. USCIRF, a semi-official organization that monitors how nations treat those of various faiths, was born by an act of Congress in 1998, but its mandate runs out on Sept. 30.

Both stories are spot-on in highlighting the need for such a voice. USCIRF is the group that releases an annual report on the state of religious freedom worldwide, red-lighting "Countries of Particular Concern." The reports, and interim statements, are often quoted in media reports on human rights.

The story by World, an evangelical newsmagazine, is the more political of the two:

WASHINGTON—A coalition of international religious freedom groups is urging the Senate to approve a six-year reauthorization for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and reject attempts to cripple the organization.
Eighty-six partners of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable this week delivered a letter to the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which currently is weighing two drastically different visions for USCIRF. The letter noted the authors agree on “very little” theologically, but they agree religious freedom strengthens cultures, stabilizes democracies, and is “the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon.”
“The most effective way to ensure the continuity of USCIRF’s essential mandate to protect and promote religious freedom worldwide is for the Senate to pass, in a timely fashion, S. 1798,” the groups wrote to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Foreign Relations chairman, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking member.

World's article also does us the service of linking to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable letter itself. And World identifies who filed S. 1798: Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate for president.

The Baptist Press version stars Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, part of the Southern Baptist Convention -- saying he "and his allies" with the Roundtable put out the letter:

The commission "can be counted upon to give an unvarnished view of the state of religious freedom in any given country regardless of the complexities of the bilateral relationship between our respective governments," according to the letter.
The ERLC's Moore told Baptist Press, "Religious liberty isn't an American privilege. It's a fundamental human right shared by every single being that has a conscience."
USCIRF "plays a crucial role in standing up for soul freedom against tyranny around the world," he said. "My prayer is that Congress would recognize this and stand on the side of liberty by passing this bill."

The article says USCIRF has reported ongoing or growing persecution of Christians and others in more than a half-dozen countries. They include not only authoritarian states like Iran and North Korea, but U.S. allies like Egypt and Pakistan. Baptist Press correlates the fact with a Pew report that says 77 percent of the world's population "lives in countries with high levels of religious restriction."

The story shrewdly notes the diverse organizations that endorsed the letter on behalf of USCIRF. They include not only evangelical Christian groups like the Family Research Council but Coptic, Jewish, Baha'i, Uyghur (central Asian), even humanist and Scientology associations.

The Baptists are muddier on a competing Senate bill, which the letter signers say could "undermine" USCIRF's work. World magazine is much clearer:

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, unveiled a two-year reauthorization that would significantly alter USCIRF, including: make USCIRF subject to the Freedom of Information Act, remove the requirement of a bipartisan commission vote for staffing decisions, roll back commissioners’ information-gathering ability, and make USCIRF’s annual report a response to the State Department’s international religious freedom report—killing its advisory role. (Durbin removed his 2014 proposal that would have created partisan Republican and Democrat staffs for USCIRF.)
“Many of the USCIRF-related provisions in S. 1860 are deeply concerning and could potentially undermine USCIRF’s vital work,” the religious freedom advocates wrote.

World also touches on a couple of conflicts surrounding USCIRF. One, as you’ve seen, is its competition with the State Department in monitoring religious freedom. The other is that James Zogby, one of the commissioners -- and a son of an aide to Sen. Durbin -- also does business with the Saudi Arabian government. This despite the fact that USCIRF's current annual report recommends adding that nation as a Country of Particular Concern. Neither issue is explored in the article, though.

There is little to fault in these articles. Perhaps they could have added some headlines and trend stories -- things like the brutality of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in east Africa. They could have pointed out the perils of life in Afghanistan. And the continuing war with the jihadist Islamic State reminds us daily that religious freedom is by no means assured for everyone.

And I wish the articles quoted more human beings. Both stories include excerpts from the letter, but World has live quotes only from an aide to Congressman Corker. Baptist Press gets remarks from Moore, but only an e-mail statement from USCIRF chairman Robert George.

Still, both articles are frighteningly timely -- frighteningly, for at least three reasons. One, because a watchdog like USCIRF is needed now more than ever. Two, because if World is right, some people want to gut or kill it. Three, because mainstream media aren't paying attention.

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