In the staring contest between the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Senate blinked first.
USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea said in an e-mail to The Christian Post that the Committee voted 70-30 last night to keep her organization alive until Dec. 16. The decision comes after two months of scrambling by USCIRF to secure stable funding for its mission of protecting religious freedom overseas. The group's governing mandate originally expired in September, only to be renewed in an overall federal budget resolution that expired today.
Founded in 1998, USCIRF has become the American government's most prominent agency concerning religious freedom abroad. Ryan Morgan, an advocacy officer for International Christian Concern (ICC), said the organization advises the president, Congress and the State Department on how they should stop religious persecution. It's also vital, he said, to the work of similar groups like his own.
"Our organization has seen that when Americans are involved, changes in attitude occur abroad," Morgan said. "I can't think of any other group that brings such influence to bear on other governments concerning religious persecution. It's the voice of the American government coming in and addressing these issues."
Lindsay Vessey, Open Doors USA's advocacy director, said in a statement that protecting others against religious persecution could play a vital role in American foreign policy. By punishing regimes that allow intolerance, she said, the world would experience greater freedom.
"Barely keeping an agency running is no way to demonstrate that religious freedom is an important national priority," Vessey said. "Furthermore, the U.S. government has spent immense sums of money to promote peace and democracy and to stem international terrorism. Imagine if a tiny fraction of that was spent on promoting religious freedom, a true antidote to terrorism? The USCIRF is focused on providing just that type of service."
The stalemate over USCIRF's future occurred as it was part of an omnibus Senate bill on the 2012 fiscal year's budget appropriations. A lone Senator halted the vote for unrelated reasons, thus threatening USCIRF with extinction as it edged closer and closer to its deadline today. A statement from ICC indicated the congressman in question was Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) but didn't state the senator's issue with the bill. Calls to both Durbin's office and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations weren't returned by press time.
"At a time when reports of violent attacks against religious minorities occur almost daily, the United States can ill afford to silence one of the greatest voices speaking out against such intolerance," said Isaac Six, another ICC advocacy officer, in a statement released last night. "Nothing less than our international reputation as the champion of religious freedom and human rights is at stake, and the thought that a single senator may compromise that reputation is disturbing, to say the least."
Dr. Richard Land, another USCIRF commissioner, executive editor of The Christian Post and president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was glad his organization had more time to plead its case. All the same, he added, it wasn't out of danger yet.
"This is a temporary fix for a shocking lack of lack of responsibility from the Congress," Land said. "The work USCIRF does is critical. To allow it to lapse and go on hiatus would send the wrong signals and deny the rights and religious freedoms of people in other countries. It is extremely frustrating people have held USCIRF hostage to other political concerns."