As Chris Seiple sees it, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has operated with a lamentable approach: "name, blame, and shame foreign governments."
That approach, in the president of the Institute for Global Engagement's view, has kept the taxpayer-funded commission from making as big a contribution to the cause of religious freedom worldwide as it might have otherwise.
In a time of budget cutbacks, Seiple said he understands why some USCIRF critics advocate eliminating the independent commission—and its $4 million a year in federal funding. The office is preparing to shut down next Friday unless Congress passes a measure. After all, a separate federal Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) already exists at the State Department.
"[But] if you eliminate USCIRF, you send a terrible signal internationally that we are less concerned about religious freedom," he said. That's especially true, he said, given that the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom—first filled by his father Robert Seiple—went unfilled for two years before Suzan Johnson Cook assumed her duties in May 2011.
Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, offers a more positive assessment of USCIRF.
Farr believes USCIRF has made excellent policy recommendations ("many of them duly ignored by the State Department") and provided oversight of the United State's "failure to pursue an aggressive IRF policy."
But like Seiple, Farr points to the international ramifications of failing to extend the life of USCIRF.
"It is reasonably clear to the persecutors … that advancing religious freedom is not a priority for the United States," Farr said. "If Congress allows the commission to die, this will be one more piece of evidence."
However, critics contend that USCIRF duplicates the mission of the IRF office while at times making its work more difficult.
When originally created in 1998, USCIRF was intended to be "a sort of think tank" that could provide recommendations to the State Department and work cooperatively with the IRF office and the ambassador, said Joseph K. Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
"Instead, the relationship has become adversarial because the commission sees its role as that of a watchdog over the [IRF] office," he said. "When its recommendations are not adopted, it becomes more shrill and strident, and this is not conducive to effective dialogue, let alone cooperation."
The debate over the future of USCIRF comes as Canada—along with nations such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom—considers creating its own religious freedom office, said Don Hutchinson, director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's Centre for Faith and Public Life.
Eliminating USCIRF would be ironic and "a substantial backwards step" as other nations launch initiatives, Hutchinson suggests.
But Grieboski responds: "It's a completely apples-oranges issues. The Canadian government is looking to establish an office comparable to the [IRF] office, not a USCIRF."
Seiple expects that the world will be watching to see what signal the U.S. sends. "At the end of the day," he said, "the U.S. needs to call more attention to religious freedom."
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Check out CT's Politics blog and news section for updates on USCIRF's current status.
Previous USCIRF coverage includes:
Lone Senator Holding Religious Freedom Commission 'Hostage' | Watchdog may close up in less than a month. (October 19, 2011)
Panel Cites Egypt for Religious Freedom Violations (April 28, 2011)
Speaking Out: USCIRF's Concern Is to Help All Religious Freedom Victims | The chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom responds to Robert Seiple's claims that it is only cursing the darkness. (November 1, 2002)
Speaking Out: The USCIRF Is Only Cursing the Darkness | The increasingly irrelevant U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom seems intent on attacking even those countries making improvements. (October 1, 2002)
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