Time is running out for an important worldwide watchdog for religious freedom. Last month, funding for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was extended to December 16, after which date its future is uncertain.
In September, the House of Representatives approved a bill funding the commission for two more years, but an anonymous senator reportedly placed a hold on the bill, preventing it from coming to a vote.
Created by Congress in 1998, the USCIRF is an independent bipartisan government agency that focuses exclusively on religious freedom. It monitors violations across the globe and makes recommendations on how the U.S. should respond.
It claims at least partial credit for the historic referendum of January of this year in which southern Sudan voted for independence. The referendum resulted from a 2005 peace agreement that ended the 20-year north-south civil war, which was triggered by the Khartoum regime’s attempts to impose its radical version of Islam on southern Sudanese Christians and animists.
The USCIRF also played a major role in another victory for religious freedom: the UN Human Rights Council’s March rejection of pressure for a hard-line international blasphemy law and its adoption instead of a more moderate resolution against religious intolerance.
Despite such high points, the USCIRF also documented severe violations of religious freedom and related human rights over the past year. In early March, for example, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Christian minister for minority affairs and a longtime champion of religious freedom, was assassinated for opposing his country’s blasphemy law. Bhatti’s murder followed the assassination in January of Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Pakistan’s Punjab region, for his opposition to the law.
The commission’s 2011 report lamented the religious violence and persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, which included the January church bombing that killed more than 20 people and a drive-by shooting in February that killed seven. It also pointed to mutual Christian-Muslim violence in Nigeria, as well as persecution of religious minorities in countries from Afghanistan and Burma to Venezuela and Vietnam.
According to its 2011 report, the USCIRF monitored almost 30 countries for religious persecution. It’s now pinning its hopes on a Senate reauthorization bill to prevent it from closing its doors next Friday.