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USCIRF in danger of losing funding

WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Sept. 15 to extend the life of a global religious liberty panel barely two weeks before it is set to expire.

The House voted 391-21 to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for two more years. All votes against the measure came from Republicans.

The Senate has a narrow window within which to act on the bill. The commission’s authorization is set to end Sept. 30.

USCIRF has played a major role in bringing attention to the persecution of Christians and other faith adherents since it was established by the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The bipartisan panel advises the White House, State Department and Congress on the condition of religious freedom overseas. Among its responsibilities is to recommend to the State Department governments that it believes qualify as “countries of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious liberty.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is one of the commission’s members.

In a floor speech before the House vote, Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., author of the bill, said the legislation was being “held hostage” in the Senate, though a spokesperson for the congressman expressed hope to Baptist Press it would gain approval in the other chamber.

“[I]f we do not pass this bill in this form today, the likelihood of this commission shutting down is very, very high,” Wolf told other members of the House.

“[Q]uite frankly, I believe that some [in the Senate] and this very administration would not mind seeing this commission shut its doors,” he said, adding, “[S]adly, the constituency for human rights and religious freedom issues is growing smaller and smaller in Washington and in this Congress. These issues have become second-class citizens in this Congress and in this town.”

Wolf’s bill not only would reauthorize USCIRF; it also would reform the makeup of the panel, change the number and tenure of its commissioners, and reduce its budget from more than $4 million to $3 million.

The USCIRF Reform and Reauthorization Act, H.R. 2867, would reduce the commission from nine to five members, giving the president one selection, Senate leaders two and House leaders two. Since 1998, the president has had three slots to fill, the Senate leadership three and the House leadership three.

Wolf’s bill is just a portion of a larger measure he introduced earlier this year that would not only have reauthorized USCIRF but would have upgraded the authority of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the State Department and strengthened the sanctions system when the State Department designates its “countries of particular concern” among other proposals.

Wolf introduced the narrower legislation Sept. 8 as the deadline neared for reauthorizing USCIRF.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. See how your representative voted at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2011/roll709.xml.

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