Religious freedom advocates lamented the loss of civilian lives in the Israel-Hamas war, antisemitism, and Islamophobia on the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
The bipartisan and multifaith US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created by passage of the act in 1998, commemorated the 25th anniversary of IRFA at an October 23 event on Capitol Hill with an overview of USCIRF accomplishments, panel discussions, congressional remarks, and historical summaries of the act’s passage.
“As a clergy, as a man of faith, I am really disturbed by the loss of civilian life in Israel and Palestine,” said USCIRF commissioner Mohamed Magid, cofounder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network to build bridges between Muslim, evangelical, and Jewish communities.
“And also, I stand against antisemitism and Islamophobia in America, on campuses. Also the loss of many lives as we speak now, of civilians in Gaza, of children, and therefore we have to value all human life,” Magid said. “But I’m really standing with my brothers and sisters in Jewish community, and brothers and sisters in Muslim community.”
Commissioner Frederick A. Davie, USCIRF vice chair and senior strategic adviser to the president at Union Theological Seminary, reiterated USCIRF’s October 11 call for an international prayer service in response to the Israel-Hamas war. Death tolls vary, but thousands have been killed and injured. The US has confirmed the deaths of at least 33 Americans.
Davie offered USCIRF’s help in organizing and participating in such a prayer service that would acknowledge “the brutality and the horror and the depravity that is taking place in the region, calling for compassion for human life and innocent lives in the region, and calling for a just and peaceful resolution to the horrors that now exist there.”
At “The First 25 Years: IRFA Accomplishments and Next Steps,” USCIRF cited accomplishments achieved and recommended steps forward in advancing religious liberty.
No other country has a similar commission, bipartisan and multifaith, USCIRF chair Abraham Cooper said. Through USCIRF and IRFA, religious issues are integrated into US foreign relations more than ever before, he said, with violations documented and exposed, violators often sanctioned, some prisoners released, and repressive governments improving laws and policies.
“Importantly, the United States no longer stands alone in recognizing the significance of international freedom of religion or belief … for everyone everywhere,” Cooper said. He characterized USCIRF as among the first to decry China’s persecution of Uyghurs as genocide, Russia’s antisemitism and Holocaust distortion, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Hamas’s attack on Israel.
In the five years since USCIRF marked the IRFA’s 20th anniversary, Davie said, the group has seen robust use of new tools to promote and achieve international religious liberty through the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act and the Global Magnitsky Act. But he said much work is still needed.
“We cannot be complacent,” Davie said. “State and non-state actors around the globe continue to perpetrate or tolerate severe religious persecution. In too many countries, individuals and communities are still targeted for their religious beliefs, activity or identity, or for their religious freedom advocacy.”
USCIRF monitors and documents religious freedom violations internationally, advocates for religious liberty, compiles frequent reports on religious freedom in numerous countries, compiles annual reports, and designates certain countries as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for their religious freedom violations.
Moving forward, USCIRF urged the US Congress to use the CPC designation more effectively and to apply more meaningful consequences against violators. USCIRF urged more congressional oversight hearings on USCIRF policy; urged Congress to be more vocal in referencing religious freedom issues in various settings, including hearings, floor speeches, and congressional delegations abroad; urged Congress to advocate for prisoners of conscience; to permanently reauthorize USCIRF through bipartisan support, and to increase USCIRF’s budget to support the body’s original intent.
Other speakers included USCIRF commissioner Frank Wolf, who was instrumental in IRFA’s passage. Wolf applauded faith communities’ support of USCIRF, and urged renewed multifaith vitality in the effort.