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U.S. government postpones decision to fund Religious Freedom Commission

By November 22, 2011

USA (MNN) — After over a month of waiting for re-authorization, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was told Friday to wait some more.

"Basically, instead of passing real budgets and instead of reauthorizing the commission, they've just given it a lifeline for one more month," explains Lindsay Vessey with Open Doors, USA. "So now the commission is funded through December 18."

Essentially, USCIRF has not been cut out of the budget yet, but no clear decisions to keep the commission afloat have been put into place either.

Why is that important? And is USCIRF really relevant to the rest of the world?

Vessey would respond with an emphatic "Yes."

The job of USCIRF can be likened to a watchdog service. USCIRF focuses exclusively on religious freedom issues around the world, monitoring violations in various nations, bringing them to light in the U.S., and making recommendations as to how the U.S. should respond.

Vessey says that USCIRF was created at the same time as the U.S. State Department Office of International Religious Freedom. Although the State Department itself deals with these religious freedom issues, Vessey explains, persecution, for instance, may be called "sectarian violence" coming out of the State Department. USCIRF would likely call this same incident "persecution," and highlight religious freedom abuses.

With USCIRF gone, this lone government voice for the persecuted would be silenced.

"One of the main things that we're concerned about, if they lose their funding and cease to exist, is that we will lose that really clear voice speaking out on behalf of people of all faiths worldwide who are being persecuted," notes Vessey.

The implications are even more severe than just one voice silenced in the States, though. Ridding the nation of USCIRF could actually affect the whole rest of the globe and encourage high-profile nations' bad behavior.

"We are the only government in the world who has an agency like this–an independent, bipartisan agency that works in religious freedom," Vessey explains. "So if we were to shut down the commission, it would be like saying that religious freedom really isn't a priority for the U.S. government any more. That would make a huge impact, I believe, on many governments around the world who are violating religious freedom."

Vessey fears that nations violating these freedoms would feel justified in doing so if they get the idea that the United States does not care whether or not they provide religious freedom. Tightening of religious restrictions of course could mean preventing evangelistic momentum.

At the end of the day, Vessey says, the December 18 postponement date isn't good enough.

"The commission needs to be reauthorized. They don't need lifelines keeping them afloat month-to-month. They actually need a true re-authorization which would keep them in existence for a couple of years. There is a bill in the senate which would do this, but it's being blocked by one senator."

Open Doors reports that one senator issued an anonymous callback preventing HR 2867 — the bill which would amend the International Freedom Act of 1998 and reauthorize USCIRF — from going to a vote. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has been named by many as the "anonymous" senator responsible.

Vessey urges concerned Christians to speak out by contacting both President Obama and state senators. To contact the White House, click here. For a list of U.S. senators, click here.

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