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Freedom of religion panel about to expire

Senate ‘hold’ blocks action on refunding

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The author of a bill to extend the life of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has said the White House wouldn't mind closing down the committee forever. It's only a few days from oblivion.

"Quite frankly, I believe that some [in the Senate] and this very administration would not mind seeing this commission shut its doors," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, the Virginia Republican who wrote the bill to reauthorize the global religious liberty panel.

The Republican-led House of Representatives voted Sept. 15 by an overwhelming 391-21 margin to reauthorize the commission for two more years, though the bill also would slice USCIRF's budget from more than $4 million a year to $3 million and cut the number of commissioners from nine to five.

According to multiple sources, an unknown senator has put a "hold" on the bill, preventing the Senate from acting on it. The panel has authorized funding only through Sept. 30, and both houses of Congress are scheduled to go into recess beginning Monday.

By late Thursday afternoon, the White House had not returned calls requesting comment.

"Sadly, the constituency for human rights and religious freedom issues is growing smaller and smaller in Washington and in this Congress," Mr. Wolf said before the House vote. "These issues have become second-class citizens in this Congress and in this town."

The commission was created as part of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which was passed with the support of conservative Christians and human rights activists to make religious freedom a priority of U.S. foreign policy.

The panel has been credited with helping bring attention to the persecution of Christians and other religious groups since then but has been criticized as adding another layer of bureaucracy and undermining the foreign-policy roles of Congress and the State Department, particularly State's Office of International Religious Freedom.

"There're too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to religious freedom," said Joseph K. Grieboski, founder and board chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. "A lot of politics have come with USCIRF that didn't exist before."

According to Mr. Grieboski, the commission's supporters think getting rid of the panel means "there will be nothing to keep the State Department's feet to the fire to make sure it's doing its job when it comes to religious freedom."

However, he said, Congress has the authority to examine the State Department's advocacy and promotion of religious freedom without the commission and that "in many ways, [USCIRF] is an abdication of congressional authority." He added, "USCIRF's demise could mean a stronger and more prominent State Department."

He expressed surprise that the panel could even get a reauthorization bill introduced in the House so close to its expiration date, adding, "I'd be shocked if USCIRF survived."

"USCIRF might not have any great defenders in the Senate who will take up the mantle, but nobody in the Senate is going to take up the mantle and say, 'Let's kill it,' " he said.

Daniel Scandling, a spokesman for Mr. Wolf, said the congressman and the bill's supporters remain optimistic about the passage of the bill.

"We're just caught up in the end-of-the-year race to pass bills before the end of the fiscal year," he said. "It's just a waiting game from here on out, but we are doing everything we can to ensure its passage."

Spokesmen for both the religious-freedom commission and the State Department had no immediate comment.

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