The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has temporarily suspended the death sentence hanging over the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
World Magazine reported that the Senate stopped playing kick the can on funding the government watchdog group Tuesday night. A voice vote led by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) passed H.R. Bill 2867 and ensured USCIRF would appear on the House floor tomorrow for a final vote confirming its existence. The measure appears just in time to meet the organization's shutdown deadline on the same day.
"I felt relief when it passed," said Dr. Richard Land, executive editor of The Christian Post, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of nine USCIRF commissioners, to CP on Thursday. "I wasn't sure they were going to do it. It's very nerve-wracking for our employees as we head into Christmas time."
The U.S. government founded USCIRF in 1998 as its signature agency for handling religious persecution overseas. Ryan Morgan, an advocacy officer for International Christian Concern (ICC), said it's a valuable aid for not only the president, Congress and the State Department on the topic, but also groups like his own.
"Everyone in the non-profit community has been waiting to see if one of the most important voices on religious freedom is going to be extinguished," Morgan said. "This is great news. USCIRF reports are almost required reading for understanding what persecution is like in certain countries."
USCIRF's woes began in September when its funding mandate ran dry. Saved by a budget extension, it survived until November and evaded extinction in another temporary Senate resolution vote at that time. Morgan said the group's funding was frozen by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for an unrelated issue buried in the same omnibus bill it was part of. Calls to Sens. Durbin and Wolf for comment weren't returned by press time, and Morgan said he couldn't speak for Durbin's decision making.
"This has come down to the deadline for extinction multiple times," he said. "It would be nice to see a paradigm shift in Congress and the media regarding religious persecution. There tends to be an uptick in persecution of Christians around the holidays, even in America."
Leonard A. Leo, USCIRF's chair, said that H.R. Bill 2867 contains two new amendments to his group. He said that it attaches two year term limits to all nine commissioners and regulates USCIRF travel abroad through the Federal Travel Regulation and the Department of State Standardized Regulation. In addition, he added, it hasn’t halted fears that USCIRF will permanently vanish by week’s end.
"We will still shut down on the end of business Friday," commented Leo on if the House didn't pass the bill. "We can't back off the wind-down until we hear that the bill has been approved."
Land said that despite his joy that USCIRF has lived to fight another day, he remains apprehensive about the new amendments. Between a reduced budget and regulated travel, he said his group wouldn't get as much firsthand experience abroad for its reports. By adding term limits, he continued, it would also eliminate most of USCIRF's current commissioners.
"You lose a tremendous amount of institutional memory and experience when you do something like this," Land said. "All the same, it's far more important that the commission survives than keeping the current commissioners."
Land said that seven of the nine commissions must leave USCIRF within 90 days should the new amendments pass.
Jerry Dykstra, the director of media relations for the watchdog organization Open Doors USA, said he hopes the House passed the changes tomorrow so USCIRF could start rebuilding. Once it did, he said, it could continue protecting the world's Christians from persecution.
"We've been campaigning and praying this would happen," Dykstra said. "Let's look down the road and see how we can get this agency to continue giving a voice to the voiceless."
Myles Collier contributed reporting to this article