Sitting across the table from Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, in December 2019 in Washington, D.C. and again in Khartoum in February, we were amazed by the changes his transitional government had made, and planned to make, to a country led for decades by a regime that was one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. After months of protesting in the streets in spite of brutal security forces, Sudan’s people had finally sparked a transition toward a democratic future, with a transitional government that was genuine about reforming oppressive policies, including those designed to persecute individuals because of their religion or belief.
Some may be surprised to learn that a discussion with a foreign head of state about religious freedom was led by political appointees from both the Republican and Democratic parties. As chair and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we were appointed, respectively, by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Even more, our bipartisan meeting with Prime Minister Hamdok was not an anomaly, but rather the norm when it comes to working on international religious freedom in Washington, D.C., and globally.
When Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) in the Senate by a vote of 98-0 and in the House, 375-41, the bipartisan support was abundantly clear. Among other things, IRFA created USCIRF, the first and only body of its kind in the world. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government agency that monitors religious freedom conditions abroad and is mandated to present policy recommendations to Congress, the Department of State and the White House. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the president and the leaders of both houses of the Congress, with the political party that holds the White House having five seats and the other party having four. By creating USCIRF and ensuring that its appointees came from both parties, Congress sought to ensure that international religious freedom would remain a bipartisan issue that would not get sidelined.
Congress regularly comes together to create policies to assist vulnerable groups around the world who are violently targeted because of their faith or their nonbelief, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is and atheists, among many others. International religious freedom is one of the few issues where you will find politicians from both ends of, and all along, the U.S. political spectrum in the same room, advocating the same thing, with equal levels of conviction and passion. The experience of nongovernmental organizations focused on international religious freedom is similar and it has been that way for over 20 years.
USCIRF has worked closely with legislators on both sides of the aisle to implement our policy recommendations into law. For example, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 ensures that the U.S. government considers China’s unwillingness to allow U.S. diplomats and journalists to travel to Tibet when deciding whether to grant Chinese diplomats access to all parts of the U.S. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which just passed both houses of Congress, imposes sanctions and export restrictions related to China’s mass persecution of Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. What’s more, members of Congress from both parties have worked closely in recent years with the government of Uzbekistan to support reforms that have led to improved human rights conditions, resulting in the Department of State no longer labeling it a “country of particular concern” for severe religious freedom violations.
In addition, every few years both chambers of Congress in a bipartisan, bicameral manner, come together to reauthorize USCIRF and renew its mandate. USCIRF’s reauthorization multiple times over the past 20 years is a testament to bipartisan commitment across both the executive and legislative branches, and a continued recognition of the importance of USCIRF’s nonpartisan advisory role. USCIRF’s latest recommendations can be viewed in our recently released 2020 Annual Report.
These are just a few examples of how USCIRF and others have worked together to advance international religious freedom on a bipartisan basis. As the chair and vice chair of USCIRF we remain committed to ensuring that our work to further the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone, everywhere, remains above the partisan fray.
Chair Tony Perkins (appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell) and Vice Chair Gayle Manchin (appointed by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer) lead the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.