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EDITORIAL: Religious freedom losing its ring

Congressional neglect could extinguish valued voice

Two Tibetan monks immolated themselves in western China on Sept. 26 to protest religious repression, a shocking reminder that attempting to smother the flame of religious freedom only make it burn brighter. Nevertheless, while religious adherents forfeit their lives overseas, Congress is close to snuffing out the organization dedicated to preserving the very same religious impulse that ignited the founding of this nation. That would be a mistake.

The pair of 18-year-old monks from Kirti monastery in western Sichuan province were reported to exclaim, "Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama; we need religious freedom immediately" as they set themselves alight. They would have no way of knowing that at the same time in Washington, the demise of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was barely averted, and perhaps only temporarily.

The commission survived imminent shutdown when Congress last week put aside its budget wrangling long enough to ink a continuing resolution for short-term funding of government operations. However, the USCIRF will again face closure when the temporary measure expires Nov. 18 unless its own budget is approved. Earlier in September, the Republican-controlled House voted 391-21 to reauthorize the commission for another two years, but an anonymous hold is blocking Senate consideration.

Congress created USCIRF in 1998 to monitor religious oppression around the world and offer recommendations for remedying problem areas. The commission petitions the secretary of state to designate as "countries of particular concern" those nations engaging in "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom" and issues a watch list of countries engaging in lesser breaches of religious tolerance.

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and author of the original International Religious Freedom Act, recently noted diminished interest among his colleagues in the commission's work. "Sadly, the constituency for human rights and religious freedom issues is growing smaller and smaller in Washington and in this Congress," he said.

Over the years, the commission has been most vocal in condemning state-sponsored repression of religion in places such as China, where the communist government persecutes groups it cannot control, especially faith communities. Similar criticism has been directed toward North Korea, Sudan, Vietnam and Iran, where a Christian pastor faces imminent execution for refusing to embrace Islam.

For America's Founding Fathers, championing religious liberty was an essential element of the American experiment. Over the centuries, this nation always has been a standard-bearer for freedom at home and an inspiration for repressed peoples everywhere. It would be a mistake to relinquish that banner now. Congress allowing USCIRF's voice to be stilled would signal to the world that Americans no longer cherish one of their core principles.

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