Int'l Religious Freedom Act marks 20 years of impact

WASHINGTON (BP) -- The International Religious Freedom Act addressed a serious shortcoming in American foreign policy, the law's advocates said at the 20-year mark of its stand against religious persecution.

The legislation, promoted by many evangelical Christian and other religious leaders, became law with President Clinton's signature on Oct. 27, 1998, and its effect has been widespread. The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) established mechanisms within the State Department and an independent commission that have raised the visibility of freedom of belief and conscience in U.S. relationships with other countries.

IRFA's importance is ongoing, Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate Russell Moore said.

"The world is ablaze with religious persecution, including some of the most violent persecution in recent history being endured by our brothers and sisters in Christ," Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said in written remarks for Baptist Press. "The congressional commitment to international religious freedom secured 20 years ago is needed now more than ever, and I pray it continues long into the future."

The need for such a course correction in U.S. foreign policy became obvious to many American evangelicals and others as they became educated in the mid-1990s to the vast persecution globally of Christians especially.

At that time, IRFA was "terribly needed" because there was a consensus among religious liberty advocates in particular that it "wasn't getting any attention from the State Department," said Richard Land, the ERLC's president from 1988-2013.

Elliott Abrams, who served two different terms on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), described "a widespread view that both violations of religious freedom were rampant in the world and that the U.S. government was paying too little attention to those crimes."

"Many in Congress and in religious organizations felt the State Department was too slow in calling out violations of religious freedom when it was far quicker to criticize, for example, violations of press freedom or freedom of speech," Abrams wrote in an Oct. 27 blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Despite opposition from major American businesses and tepid support from the White House, a diverse coalition that included the ERLC gained congressional IFRA passage without opposition in early October 1998.

The law, among its provisions, created within the State Department an office of international religious freedom and the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. It also established USCIRF, a bipartisan nine-member panel to monitor the status of religious liberty worldwide and issue reports to Congress, the president and the State Department.

The law has been "a tremendous success," said Land, now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., in a phone interview with BP.

"There's no question that we have made a real difference in real people's lives.... That law has changed the culture at the State Department, and that to me is the most important thing," Land said.

Abrams noted, "If the problem was inadequate attention to religious freedom by the United States government, [IRFA] was indeed the cure."

The law "was true to our nation's history and our deepest beliefs, and continues to remind all who serve in our government that protecting and advancing 'the first freedom' must be a goal of our foreign policy," said Abrams, deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush and now senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at CFR.

IRFA's new requirement that each U.S. embassy overseas provide an annual report on the status of religious liberty in its country "has been the most profound result of the law," said Land, who served as a USCIRF commissioner for a total of 10 years over two tenures while ERLC president.

The embassy staff member with the least seniority was assigned the task of compiling the report, Land noted.

"Well, what this did was sensitize those people to what was actually going on and the fact that in most countries it wasn't good," he told BP. "And as those people rose up through the seniority system in the State Department and became more and more senior civil servants, the whole attitude of the State Department began to change to this issue."

USCIRF's members "saw it, we experienced it," he recalled. "The State Department became not only more conversant but sympathetic to religious freedom issues as a result of having to compile that report starting out when they were low man on the totem pole. I'm talking about the foreign service people, not the political appointees."

USCIRF -- whose members are unpaid and appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both political parties -- issues an annual report in which it recommends "countries of particular concern" (CPCs), the most severe violators of religious liberty, to the State Department. The secretary of State designates CPCs, which are typically fewer than the number recommended by USCIRF. USCIRF also identifies "entities of particular concern," non-state organizations that use violence against people of faith.

Currently, Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan make up the State Department's CPC list. USCIRF recommended an additional six CPCs in its 2018 report. Another 12 countries are on USCIRF's Tier 2 list, which is for governments that engage in or tolerate serious violations without reaching the standard for CPCs.

USCIRF has made a difference for persecuted individuals who were prisoners, Land also noted.

"We did get people out of jail," he said, recalling at least 10 occasions while he was on USCIRF "where we were told by foreign governments, 'We will let this person out of jail or leave the country if they want to leave the country as long as you don't take credit for it.' And we said, 'OK. We're more than happy to forego credit. We want this person out of jail.'"

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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