1. What is the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and how was it created?
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan, U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. USCIRF uses international standards to monitor religious freedom violations globally, and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.
2. Who is on the Commission and how are Commissioners selected?
USCIRF is composed of nine private sector commissioners who volunteer their time in support of USCIRF’s mandate, and the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who is a non-voting member. Commissioners are appointed by the President and Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. USCIRF is a congressionally created entity, not a non-governmental organization, interest group, or advocacy organization.
The current Commissioners are: Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J. (Chair), Dr. Daniel Mark (Vice Chair), Dr. James J. Zogby (Vice Chair), Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz, Sandra Jolley, Dr. John Ruskay, and Ambassador Jackie Wolcott. Ambassador David Saperstein, the State Department's Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, serves as an ex-officio member of the Commission.
IRFA mandates that three Commissioners are selected by the President, two by the leaders of the President’s party in Congress, and four by the congressional leaders of the party not in the White House. Commissioners are appointed for two year terms, and are eligible for reappointment. According to IRFA, Commissioners are “selected among distinguished individuals noted for their knowledge and experience in fields relevant to the issue of international religious freedom, including foreign affairs, direct experience abroad, human rights, and international law.”
3. What is the difference between USCIRF and the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom?
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity, while the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) — also established under IRFA—is part of the U.S. State Department. Both USCIRF and the State Department release annual reports on international religious freedom, but each has different purposes. The State Department's report documents religious freedom violations in every country in the world. USCIRF’s Annual Report, by statute, recommends countries to be designated as “countries of particular concern” which the Executive Branch must consider. The report also examines select countries, and while also documenting abuses, makes policy recommendations to the executive and legislative branches of government. USCIRF’s report also comments on the effectiveness of the State Department’s efforts to promote international religious freedom.
4. How does USCIRF define violations of religious freedom and is USCIRF trying to impose American values or the American conception of separation of church and state on other countries?
USCIRF monitors religious freedom through the lens of international human rights standards, such as those found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest this religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” By relying on international human rights standards as specified in IRFA, USCIRF is not attempting to impose American values on other nations, but rather examines the actions of foreign governments against these universal standards and by their freely undertaken international commitments.
5. What are “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) and which countries has USCIRF recommended to be designated as CPCs?
The International Religious Freedom Act requires the President, who has delegated this function to the Secretary of State, to designate as “countries of particular concern,” or CPCs, those countries that commit systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Pursuant to IRFA, USCIRF recommends the countries that, in its view, meet the CPC threshold and should be so designated. For countries designated as CPCs, IRFA provides the Secretary of State with a range of flexible and specific policy options (referred to as Presidential actions) to address serious violations of religious freedom. These options, which can include sanctions or a waiver of actions, are not automatically imposed.
USCIRF has recommended that the following 17 countries be designated as CPCs for 2016: Burma, Central African Republic, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
6. What is USCIRF’s “Tier 2,” and what countries are included on this list?
USCIRF has established a Tier 2 (formerly USCIRF’s Watch List) of countries in which religious freedom conditions do not rise to the statutory level that would mandate a CPC designation but require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments.
7. What are some of the issues USCIRF has addressed in its work and advocacy?
Along with focusing on specific countries, USCIRF also has addressed a range of issues including, because of an explicit mandate in IRFA, the domestic issue of asylum seekers in the expedited removal process.
- Blasphemy Laws: Blasphemy laws are a vehicle for egregious violations of religious freedom and related human rights in a number of countries and a longstanding USCIRF concern. These laws punish expression deemed blasphemous (contemptuous of God or sacred things), defamatory of religion, or insulting to religion or religious symbols, figures, or feelings. Not only do they threaten the individual right to the freedoms of religion and expression, they also violate international standards, including Article 18 of the International Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
These bans also inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness as they empower officials to enforce particular religious views against individuals and minorities. They also exacerbate religious intolerance and discrimination, and embolden extremists to commit violent acts against perceived blasphemers. Furthermore, blasphemy charges – which often are based on false accusations — have been used for political purposes, and those detained, charged, or sentenced face violence and death.
In March 2014, USCIRF issued a policy brief, Prisoners of Belief: Individuals Jailed under Blasphemy Laws, which surveyed the global use of these laws and highlighted numerous blasphemy cases and prisoners. USCIRF also spoke out on the issue through press releases and op-eds, such as a March 2016 press release calling for the reform and repeal of Pakistan's blasphemy laws, a January 2015 press release condemning the Saudi government’s flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, a February 2015 op-ed calling for the repeal of blasphemy laws, and a February 2014 press release expressing concern about Russia’s new blasphemy law,
- Countering Religiously-Motivated Extremist Violence: Developments of the past decade have strengthened attention to the importance of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as the U.S. government navigates a world threatened by religion-based extremism and religion-imbued conflict. The issue of religious freedom has had a profound impact on America’s national security interests, as well as on stability throughout the world. Whether in the Middle East, Africa, South and East Asia, Europe or elsewhere, religion and the striving for religious freedom have often been explicit or implicit factors in civil strife. By the same token, religion also has been a powerful voice in building rule-of-law human rights-based democracies, as well as promoting post-conflict reconciliation. A growing body of research indicates that religious freedom is a positive factor in enabling societies to be prosperous and stable.
- Defending Freedoms Project: The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission launched an initiative in the House of Representatives, in conjunction with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Amnesty International, called the Defending Freedoms Project. The initiative aims to draw attention to prisoners of conscience around the world and ultimately to get Members of Congress to “adopt” these prisoners, thereby committing to advocate on their behalf and highlight the country conditions that led to their imprisonment. Currently, there are about 70 prisoners of conscience highlighted by the project, ranging from religious leaders to journalists and human rights defenders from all across the world. View information on the Defending Freedoms Project here.
On January 16, 2014, USCIRF testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on “Defending Freedoms: Highlighting the Plight of Prisoners of Conscience around the World.” During the hearing, Members of Congress heard testimony from former prisoners of conscience and family members of current prisoners. USCIRF also issued a December 9, 2014 press release entitled “Remembering Prisoners of Conscience on Human Rights Day.” Additionally, USCIRF published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on May 20, 2014 entitled “Iran’s Forgotten Prisoners of Conscience” and in The Hill on January 27, 2014 entitled “Congress can defend freedoms abroad.”
USCIRF will continue to promote the Project in the House of Representatives and seek more Members of Congress to adopt prisoners of conscience, including exploring expanding into the Senate.
- Expedited Removal -- The U.S. Government’s Treatment of Asylum Seekers: IRFA authorized USCIRF to conduct a major study on the U.S. government’s treatment of asylum seekers in expedited removal. The study, conducted in 2003-04 with findings released in 2005, found serious flaws placing asylum seekers at risk of being returned to countries where they may face persecution, and highlighted concerns about the conditions of detention. The study made a series of recommendations to the responsible agencies in the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, which the Department of Justice has implemented but the Department of Homeland Security generally has not.
As 2015 marks the 10-year anniversary of the study’s release, USCIRF is reviewing the current situation of asylum seekers in expedited removal. To conduct this research, USCIRF staff has visited ports of entry, border posts, asylum offices, and immigration detention facilities in southern California (July 2014), New York and New Jersey (September 2014), Florida and Puerto Rico (November 2014) and south Texas (February and June 2015) to tour facilities, meet with officials and detainees, and observe processing. In addition, USCIRF staff has met on asylum issues with officials from DHS headquarters, ICE, and USCIS, as well as with non-governmental experts. USCIRF anticipates issuing sometime in 2016 a special report assessing implementation of the study’s recommendations and discussing the changes in expedited removal over the past decade.
- International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP FoRB): In the face of escalating violations of religious freedom worldwide, USCIRF initiated an effort in 2014 to network parliamentarians from across the globe who support freedom of religion or belief for all. The effort formally was launched in November 2014 at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway. Thirty parliamentarians who represented different regions, political parties and religions, signed an unprecedented joint statement committing themselves to advance religious freedom for all. This statement, the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief, commits parliamentarians to promote religious freedom or belief for all persons through their work and respective institutions and enhance global cooperation. The parliamentarians also jointly signed several letters -- to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the President of Burma, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, and the President of Indonesia -- expressing concerns about the religious freedom environments in these countries. USCIRF Commissioners and staff participated in the meeting and the Commission welcomed the unprecedented event in a statement.
The Oslo meeting resulted from over two years of work by USCIRF Commissioners and staff to build networks to advance religious freedom globally. USCIRF also has been working with the State Department and the Canadian government to build a similar governmental coalition to advance religious freedom internationally. The Inter-governmental Contact Group for Freedom of Religion was launched in June 2015. USCIRF staff participated in the launch.
- Refugee Crises: In 2015, nearly 60 million people were refugees or internally displaced, the highest number the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has ever recorded. Many of these people are fleeing religious persecution and intolerance, and USCIRF long has been concerned about the plight of these vulnerable groups. In Iraq, nearly three million people have been internally displaced due to ISIL’s offensive, with some minority religious communities facing the threat of extinction. At least 6.5 million of Syria’s pre-civil war population now is internally displaced, and nearly four million more are refugees in neighboring states. In Nigeria, more than one million people have fled Boko Haram, and in the Central African Republic, a million or more people have been driven from their homes due to sectarian violence; 80 percent of the country’s Muslims have fled the country. In Burma, at least 100,000 Kachin Christians and 140,000 Rohingya Muslims remain internally displaced, with many living in squalid camps. One in ten Rohingya reportedly have fled by boat, desperately seeking, and often not finding, safe haven in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. A record number of refugees also are attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to apply for asylum in Europe, with large numbers coming from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
In December 2015, USCIRF issued a press release calling for continued Syrian refugee resettlement. In October 2015, USCIRF held an event at the National Press club with UN High Commisisoner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres on the Syrian refugee crisis. In June 2015, USCIRF issued a press release commemorating World Refugee Day and calling for the U.S. government to increase the U.S. annual refugee resettlement ceiling from 70,000 to 100,000 or more, over time. In a February 2014 press release and April 2014 op-ed, USCIRF welcomed U.S. government action to ease the unfair effect of overbroad terrorism bars and urged increased efforts to resettle vulnerable refugees, including Syrians, to the United States. In September 2014, USCIRF wrote a letter to President Obama recommending additional actions to assist Iraqi and Syrian refugees and IDPs. USCIRF issued a press release in June 2015 commemorating World Refugee Day and making recommendations to the U.S. government to respond to this unprecedented crisis.
8. What are some recent USCIRF activities?
In recent years, USCIRF’s activities have included visits to 24 countries; testifying at Congressional hearings; and supporting and addressing the concerns of a broad range of religious communities around the world. Some of USCIRF’s activities include:
- Issuing an Annual Report: Pursuant to its congressional mandate, USCIRF releases an Annual Report, available in hard copy and on this website, which reports on religious freedom conditions in selected countries and formulates policy recommendations for the Administration and Congress. The 2016 report covers 31 countries.
- Recommending “Countries of Particular Concern:” USCIRF recommends countries the Secretary of State should designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” under IRFA for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.” When a country is designated a “Country of Particular Concern,” the President is required by law to take one of several actions, including economic sanctions, or a waiver of action.
- Designating Tier 2 Countries: USCIRF maintains a list of Tier 2 countries in which religious freedom conditions require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief that the government engages in or tolerates and annually designates countries for this list.
- Monitoring other Countries: USCIRF includes in its Annual Report chapters on other countries. The 2016 Annual report reviewed religious freedom conditions in Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Western Europe.
- Traveling Abroad: USCIRF has visited countries throughout the world to examine religious freedom conditions firsthand and develop more specific policy recommendations for U.S. action. Commissioners have met with heads of state, ministers, other senior government officials, representatives of human rights and other nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, victims of religious intolerance, and others in: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Burma, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
- Testifying before Congress and Working with Congressional Offices: USCIRF has testified at Congressional hearings on numerous subjects including protecting international religious freedom; Iran’s human rights record under President Rouhani; prisoners of conscience; the persecution of Uighurs in China; and the “defamation of religions” resolutions in the United Nations. USCIRF Commissioners and staff also regularly meet with Members of Congress and their staffs, and the Commission serves as a resource for many Congressional offices.
- Engaging Internationally and Multilaterally: USCIRF participates in multilateral meetings related to religious freedom including at the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe. USCIRF’s work in this area has focused particularly on the problematic “defamation of religions” resolutions at the UN and multilateral efforts to combat xenophobia and related intolerance in the OSCE region. In addition, USCIRF has participated in the Third Istanbul Process meeting on Resolution 16/18, and has met with officials from the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union.
- Highlighting Religious Freedom Issues through the Media: USCIRF issues statements and press releases on a wide range of issues including, for example, on religious freedom abuses in Crimea; the designation of victims of genocide in Syria and Iraq; the closing of the Halki Seminary in Turkey; the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience in China; and on anti-semitism worldwide.
- Issuing Reports: USCIRF’s recent reports focused on: a survey and assessment of religious education books in Pakistan; compulsory religious education in Turkey: religious freedom violations in Burma; the Egyptian constitution; the role of Shari’ah in Sudan’s constitution and law; the implications of religious and ethnic violence in Burma; the situation in Russia; and the U.S. government’s detention of asylum seekers.
9. Which individuals and groups are the focus of USCIRF's work and advocacy?
USCIRF works to encourage the fully enjoyment of the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all. USCIRF has focused on a diverse array of religious communities around the world, including: Uighur Muslims in China; Baha'is and Sufi Muslims in Iran; Ahmadis and Hindus in Pakistan and Indonesia: Muslims and Christians in India; Christians, Mandaeans, and Yazidis in Iraq.
10. How does USCIRF obtain information about violations of religious freedom abroad?
USCIRF obtains information about violations of religious freedom abroad in multiple ways, including visiting selected countries in order to observe facts on the ground, meeting regularly with foreign officials, religious leaders and groups, victims of religious intolerance, and representatives of civil society, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, and national and international organizations, and keeping abreast of credible news reports.
11. How can you contact USCIRF?
For more information, contact USCIRF at 202-523-3240 or firstname.lastname@example.org.