Wednesday, December 21, 2011

US religious freedom commission reauthorized at last minute

A U.S. federal commission that works to support religious freedom around the world was reauthorized Dec. 16 by Congress through 2018, just hours before it was scheduled to go out of existence. 

In a statement after the U.S. House vote on Dec. 16, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) described the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as “a beacon of hope” for those whose religious liberty is under attack.

“These individuals long to have their plight known and their cause championed,” he said, adding that he was “grateful” that Congress recognized the importance of the commission’s work.

Congressman Wolf co-authorized the legislation that created the commission in 1998, to call attention to religious liberty violations around the world.

The commission advises the president, U.S. Congress and State Department on the status of international religious freedom.

It presents an annual report on religious liberty abusers and recommends that specific countries which tolerate “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom be designated as “countries of particular concern.”

The commission’s funding was originally set to expire at the end of September, but a series of brief extensions was granted by Congress over the next three months, allowing it to continue its work for a few weeks at a time.

The latest extension was set to expire at 5 p.m. on Dec. 16. 

The commission had already begun winding down operations so it could close its doors by the end of the day, before it was reauthorized by Congress on the morning of Dec. 16.

Commission chairman Leonard Leo told CNA on Dec. 9 that reauthorization was necessary for the commission to continue to function properly.

He explained that the temporary extensions had made it difficult for the commission to operate effectively because the threat of being shut down was always imminent. 

The House of Representatives had approved a bill to reauthorize the commission in September, but the process was stalled for months because Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate, reportedly placed a secret hold on it, 
preventing it from coming to a vote in the Senate.

Durbin finally allowed the bill to come to a vote on Dec. 13, after amending it to place a two-year limit on commissioners and putting them under the same travel restrictions as employees of the Department of State.

The reauthorization bill was unanimously approved by the Senate. 

Although several members of the House objected to the late addition of Durbin’s amendments, they accepted the legislation on Dec. 16 to save the commission from going out of existence at the end of the day.

Rep. Wolf said the commission’s work of speaking out against religious freedom abuses is “of the utmost importance.”

He commended the commission for its work to highlight abuses in countries such as Sudan, Pakistan and China, and emphasized the severity of the ongoing battle for religious freedom. 

He referenced a recent study indicating that about 70 percent of the world’s population lives in a country with significant religious liberty restrictions. 

Rep. Wolf stated that the reauthorization “sends a clear message” that international religious freedom remains “a U.S. foreign policy priority.”

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