ICC Note: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created in 1998 to be an independent watchdog reporting on violations of religious freedom around the globe. It is a one-of-a-kind entity that shines a light on persecution carried out by other nations and it’s reports are used extensively by those campaigning for greater protection against religious persecution. Sadly, Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois has nearly silenced the commission on multiple occasions over the past four years. The following in-depth report by World Magazine provides an excellent overview of the attempts to reform or silence the commission.
07/10/2015 United States (World Magazine) – In 2001, some 60 police officers stormed the central Vietnam church where Father Thadeus Nguyên Văn Lý was preparing to deliver Mass. His crime? Providing testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body advocating for religious minorities. Today the bespectacled, 68-year-old priest is frail enough to use a walker but remains imprisoned 40 miles south of Hanoi.
Political and economic concerns often deter the U.S. government from officially speaking out for prisoners of conscience like Father Lý. That’s why Congress created USCIRF in 1998 as an independent, government-funded commission that would—free of entangling alliances and competing interests—provide candid recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.
Hostility to religion worldwide has only grown in the years since, but the Obama years have seen the commission’s future and its independence repeatedly challenged. In some two dozen interviews, USCIRF commissioners, lawmakers, and staffers told me they believe the commission’s existence is in danger. Backroom strife coupled with partisanship—and now possible conflicts of interest—all threaten to derail USCIRF at a time when it is most needed by persecuted religious adherents.
Congress must periodically reauthorize USCIRF to keep it operating, a formality that was not controversial for the first dozen years of its existence. The commission met with foreign government officials, shined a light on prisoners of conscience such as Father Lý, and provided testimony to Congress. As part of its annual reports, USCIRF sounded early alarms on issues such as Boko Haram’s rise in Nigeria.
In late 2011, USCIRF reauthorization unexpectedly hit a snag when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, launched a bid to reform the commission that led to a deal hours before USCIRF would have shuttered. Many thought the reform fight was finished—it wasn’t. In 2014, the House unanimously passed a five-year USCIRF reauthorization, but Durbin filed separate legislation proposing drastic changes. Among them, as an antidote to alleged partisanship in commission staff, Durbin proposed creating separate Democratic and Republican staffs, including majority and minority staff directors.
Many advocates in the international religious freedom community had welcomed some of Durbin’s 2011 reforms, such as establishing term limits for commissioners, but his 2014 proposal met stiff opposition. Elliott Abrams, a commissioner in 1999-2001 and 2012-2014, said the idea to “inject party politics” into USCIRF is a “disastrous mistake.” He told me he would rather the commission die than have partisan staffs: “This isn’t politics. … There is no Democratic and Republican view of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia.”
It turns out Durbin’s proposals stem from a single aide named Joe Zogby. The University of Virginia law graduate, who went to work for Durbin in 2003, is chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, a panel tasked with, among other issues, immigration and judicial nominations. USCIRF falls under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Relations Committee—which Durbin served on from 2011 to 2014—but Zogby has positioned himself as the power broker of the U.S. Senate on the issue. Zogby delivered demands to the staff of Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., in 2011 and 2014, and now Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who has taken over as the primary bill sponsor following Wolf’s retirement.
It’s common for staffers to take the lead on congressional negotiations, but Zogby’s involvement has a twist: His father sits on the commission. In 2013, President Barack Obama appointed long-time Democrat James Zogby—brother of pollster John Zogby—to a two-year term, and then reappointed him this year.
Meanwhile, Durbin’s office is pushing changes to micromanage USCIRF, such as a new process to hire and retain the commission’s executive director (who many people told me has done an excellent job). Joe Zogby, lacking support from the international religious freedom community, is searching for endorsements among refugee organizations.
Smith declined to discuss specifics about the negotiations, but he expressed concern that Durbin “will block the bill this year—and he’ll be responsible for killing the commission.” That would be an odd move for Durbin, who has a strong human rights record, but it may not be far-fetched: Last year, in a meeting with participants of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, Joe Zogby threatened to “kill USCIRF” if the groups didn’t cooperate.