Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, chair of religious freedom commission, says improvements are incremental

Long before contraception and women's health provided under the Affordable Care Act enabled the U.S. bishops, a group of gray-habited nuns and their army of high-priced lawyers to create ground zero for religious freedom in the U.S. through litigation, a broad-based coalition of religious organizations, including Evangelicals, Catholics and Jews, convinced Congress that religious freedom was in serious peril outside the U.S.

In October 1998 President William Jefferson Clinton signed into law the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), passed unanimously by both the House of Representatives and the Senate in order to monitor the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad and make policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress.

The act created what is not a well-known independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). This bipartisan commission is made up of nine commissioners appointed by the president and House and Senate leaders. The ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is an ex officio commission member. The other commissioners are unpaid volunteers from the private sector. The first chair of USCIRF was Rabbi David Saperstein.

In 2014 the White House contacted National Catholic Reporter Senior Analyst Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, about becoming a member of USCIRF. In response, Reese offered up names of other prospective members to the White House to no avail. "I talked to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who had been a member of the commission, and he encouraged me to accept," said Reese.

President Barack Obama appointed Reese to the Commission in May 2014, and re-appointed him in May 2016 for a two-year term. A month ago Reese was unanimously elected chair of USCIRF, a first for a Catholic priest in this role.

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"My hope is to work with the other commissioners to help improve the status of religious freedom abroad," said Reese. "But we have to be realistic. This is difficult work that requires persistence and patience."

Given the depth and breadth of threats to religious freedom abroad, Reese and his fellow volunteer commissioners spend many hours keeping themselves abreast of this global crisis. "We are a very active commission, and commissioners take their work seriously," said Reese. "I am committed to bipartisanship, which is essential for a successful commission," he said.

The commissioners' work is supported by a nonpartisan professional staff of currently 12 full-time employees and funded through an annual Congressional appropriation, which this year was $3.5 million. The USCIRF issues as annual report by May 1 of each year; documents religious freedom conditions abroad; engages Congress; issues reports with policy prescriptions; and engages multilaterally. The commissioners also make trips abroad to the countries they analyze. Last year Reese traveled to Nigeria and Vietnam.

"Our reports are carefully read in the State Department, on the [Capitol] Hill, by human rights groups, and by foreign governments," said Reese. "Our job is to make sure that religious liberty is not ignored as a crucial U.S. foreign policy goal. A lack of religious freedom leads to civil unrest, which does not serve our national security interests and civil unrest is bad for business."

Yet some expected positive changes in country leadership doesn't always result in greater religious freedom.

"The situation in Burma [Myanmar] has been disappointing," said Reese. He provided this overview:

In 2015, peaceful elections ended more than 50 years of military-controlled government in Burma, yet the new government faces myriad human rights challenges. Throughout the year, Burma's government and non-state actors, including militant Buddhist monks, continued to violate religious freedom.

The abuses were particularly severe for Rohingya Muslims. Instead of protecting those most in need, like the Rohingya, Burma's government intensified its actions isolating and marginalizing vulnerable groups, leaving hundreds of thousands internally displaced and without basic necessities.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD government have many priorities to fulfill, but one of the most important is for the new government to prioritize religious freedom.

The work of the USCIRF is more urgent today than every before.

"By any measure, religious freedom is under serious and sustained pressure abroad, with the severe consequences for all to see including: the largest displacement of people since World War II caused by governments and non-state actors; the genocide committed against religious minorities and dissenting Muslims in Iraq by ISIL; blasphemy laws which restrict the freedoms of religion, and the escalating use of anti-extremism and anti-terrorism laws to violate religious freedom," said Reese.

The most well-known assaults on religious minorities are taking place in Syria and Iraq. The USCIRF was one of the first U.S. government entities to declare that ISIS was committing genocide against religious minorities.

"In 2015 USCIRF was one of the first government entities to call for the U.S. government to declare that ISIL was committing genocide against the Christian, Yazidi, Shi'a, Turkmen, and Shabak communities in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria," said Reese. "We felt it was important to mention all these communities, not just the Christians."

Reese pointed out that "more Sunnis have suffered under ISIL than have other groups, but strictly speaking, their suffering falls under the legal category of 'crimes against humanity rather than "genocide," he said. "This is an important distinction for lawyers, but I am not sure it makes much difference to the person being killed."

The commission did not stop at simply making the genocide declaration against ISIS. It also proposed the following U.S. government action:

  • Include in all military or security assistance to the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan governments a requirement that security forces are integrated to reflect the country's religious and ethnic diversity, and provide training on universal human rights standards, particularly for religious minorities.
  • Withhold foreign military assistance for any forces committing gross human rights violations.
  • Call for or support a referral by the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court to investigate ISIL violations in Iraq and Syria against religious and ethnic minorities.

As it approaches its 20th anniversary, has USIRFC been successful? Reese thinks the answer is yes.

"As a social scientist, I ask myself this question all the time," he said. "Sometimes success is very concrete as when a prisoner of conscience is released from jail at our request. Other times improvements are incremental," he said.

"In two Muslim countries we worked to improve their textbooks by removing defamatory and hateful descriptions of other religious groups," Reese points out.

"Given that, I think it is crucially important that USCIRF continue to bear witness; work to educate Members of Congress and officials in the Executive Branch; and make the general public aware of religious freedom violations and advances abroad."

[Tom Gallagher is a regular contributor to NCR on domestic and foreign affairs.]


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