Washington Wednesday: Prioritizing religious liberty overseas

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 6th of November, 2019.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Before we get started today, a reminder. We will be putting together parts of the program before a live audience in a few days—15 days to be precise. It’s The World and Everything in It Live! This time we’re in Nashville, Tennessee, for a time to meet you, take some pictures, and talk about why this kind of journalism matters in the marketplace. Sound journalism grounded in facts and biblical truth.

EICHER: Right, why it makes such a difference. These live events are so much fun, and if you are in the Nashville area the week before Thanksgiving, I hope you’ll come on out so we can meet you in person. November 21st is the date, 7 p.m. Central is the time. 

Tickets are free, but you do have to register to get your seat. Just go to worldandeverything.org, look for the “engage” tab, then click “live events.”

REICHARD: OK, lots of details for this Washington Wednesday now. 

Among all the headlines that you see about Syria, Ukraine, and impeachment, an important storyline has received much less attention: The government is set to run out of money in two weeks. Actually on that same date we just talked about—November 21st. 

Congress passed another short-term spending bill just in September to fund the government through that date.

EICHER: It’s understandable if you feel like this is Groundhog Day. 

And once again lawmakers are rushing to hammer out the details for the rest of the fiscal year. Another short-term deal to fund the government through December appears likely. 

On Monday, President Trump was noncommittal on signing another short-term spending agreement.

REICHARD: One negotiating point of interest to Christian advocacy groups is what will happen to the U-S Commission on International Religious Freedom. It goes by the acronym USCIRF. 

The commission is independent, but it is government funded. And some lawmakers want to make changes during all these budget negotiations. 

WORLD’s Washington, D.C., reporter Harvest Prude has been following this story, and she’s here now to talk about the latest. 

Harvest, good morning!


REICHARD: OK, let’s start at the beginning. What is USCIRF’s reason to exist? 

PRUDE: USCIRF was established to advocate for religious freedom as an important component of the United States’ foreign policy and also to advocate for people who are persecuted because of their faith around the world…

REICHARD: How did it begin and why does it matter?

PRUDE: Congress established USCIRF in 1998 to monitor religious freedom abuses abroad. And it’s the only commission like it in the world. So nine commissioners on a volunteer, pro bono basis travel to some of these very dangerous countries and they give independent advice to Congress, to the president, to the Secretary of State on how to move forward. One concrete example of why USCIRF matters is Andrew Brunson–the American pastor who was jailed in Turkey for two years, and who the United States secured his release last year. One of the commissioners  adopted him as prisoner of conscience during his imprisonment. And that advocacy was really, that’s something Turkey doesn’t like that stands out. That a U-S entity is calling them out for their bad behavior. 

REICHARD: And the commission produces an annual report, as I understand it?

PRUDE: Yes, the 2019 report was released in April. And I mean, similar to the Andrew Brunson situation, other countries don’t like being listed by the commission as here are the problems you all have with religious freedom and oppression. 

REICHARD: Countries that don’t want to be called out for denying people the freedom to live according to one’s own conscience. What are some of the countries named in the latest report?

PRUDE:  So countries with Muslim theocracies like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Countries with communist, totalitarian governments like China and North Korea, among others.

REICHARD: Yeah, and perhaps another measure of its effectiveness is the attention this receives from members of Congress. It seems like every time USCIRF is up for reauthorization, there’s a battle of some sort. 

PRUDE: Religious freedom long been a bipartisan issue; but over the years when it comes to getting this thing funded, lawmakers wrangled over the direction of the commission; In 2011, Sen. Dick Durbin proposed amendments like creating separate democrat and republican staffs to help the commissioners you know which ejected party politics, almost derailed the funding process. Then in 2015–Durbin’s office proposed more changes that would basically micromanage USCIRF and ultimately forced off some of the most experienced commissioners at the time.

REICHARD: So that’s some of the history, various attempts to inject political aspiration into something not designed to be that way. And that brings us up now to the present. What changes are on the table this time around?

PRUDE: Right, so USCIRF is once again facing reauthorization. The commission needs to be reauthorized in a couple weeks. And actually nothing is on the table right now. Lawmakers introduced a bill last month, but it proved to be so controversial that the senate offices have gone back to the drawing board. So that bill contained provisions that some said would really restrict the independence of the commissioners. They would have to do things like get approval ahead of giving talks to outside groups in their official capacity; they’d have to report back about any event that they were identified at as a commissioner by a third party; they’d have to forward all of their communications to staff.  But others, when I talked to other about the bill they said some of these measures are needed as accountability measures, to make sure there isn’t confusion about when commissioners are acting as private citizens versus as a U.S. official. So there was a tug-of-war there; but overall the bill got pulled because of overall contention about the process.

REICHARD: And what do outside groups think about it? 

PRUDE: At this point, people in the int’l religious freedom community I talked to they’re just hopeful that whatever the next iteration looks like–that it will allow USCIRF to maintain bipartisan support and to continue to carry out its mission.

REICHARD: And then if this bill doesn’t pass as stand-alone legislation, what happens? 

PRUDE: If it doesn’t pass as stand-alone, it’ll be funded as-is, part of a you know continuing resolution tacked on to some other funding bill. But of course that means in another 12 months or so you’re facing the same fight. 

And of course what’s at stake here is that—if the commission doesn’t get funded, if it goes under; a lot of those totalitarian, repressive governments we mentioned earlier, you know, they’re the ones that are going to be rejoicing because that’s one less watchful eye calling them out and one less voice for those around the world who are persecuted and oppressed. 

REICHARD: Harvest Prude is WORLD’s Capitol Hill reporter. She writes a weekly roundup for WORLD Digital called The Stew. Harvest, thanks so much for this update. 

PRUDE: You’re welcome.

Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk

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