Democrat cites Trump Muslim ban in call for international watchdog to grade U.S. religious freedom

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The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) — established by a 1998 law and tasked with monitoring religious liberty overseas — should compare how the United States performs against international standards, Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said Tuesday.

Such a change would require amending the 23-year-old International Religious Freedom Act, however. Current USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza said this would make the bipartisan human rights panel a “political” body that would lose global influence. 

Mr. McGovern is a co-chair of the House of Representatives Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and made his comments during a hearing the panel had on international religious liberty issues. Congress established the Lantos Commission in 2008 to promote, defend and advocate for international human rights, according to the panel’s website.

“Perhaps it is time for Congress to mandate that the United States be included in annual analyses of the state of freedom of belief, or religion around the world,” Mr. McGovern said. “We would learn from comparing U.S. practices with other countries. And it would send a strong message that we hold our own country to the same universal standards we expect others to uphold.”

Prefacing his suggestion with “a call for humility,” Mr. McGovern declared, “As Americans, we think of ourselves as a beacon for freedom of religion. After all, it’s the first freedom addressed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

However, he asserted, “From the founding of our nation, freedom of religion was defined within the context of a body of interdependent rights.”

Mr. McGovern recalled the anti-Catholic prejudice encountered by President John F. Kennedy in 1960, adding, “I’m sure we all remember that the last administration sought to ban entry to the United States for Muslims. Let’s also remember that only two years ago, the Supreme Court denied the request of a death row inmate to be accompanied by his Muslim spiritual advisor, as he was executed.”

He continued, “Just this week, The Washington Post published an article about the desire of a new religious movement to replace the separation of church and state with a world in which their version of Christianity will control all spheres of life, including government, a theocratic vision, if you will.”

Ms. Maenza, designated as USCIRF chair in May, told The Washington Times that comparing the United States with other nations “would introduce the political element to it. People want to win, they want power, [to] be in power, they want to get support from a constituency that cares about that issue.”

She added, “Currently, our constituency is, obviously Congress, but it really is the persecuted. So we answer to Congress, we make recommendations to Congress, to the president, and to the secretary of state, [but] our constituency really [are] the persecuted, and I’d hate it to become voting blocs.”

Other members of the Lantos Commission, in their opening remarks, focused more on global religious liberty issues.

Rep. Chris Smith, the panel’s co-chair, noted religious tensions in Nigeria, Iran, and Pakistan, but especially in the People’s Republic of China, slated to host the Winter Olympics in 2022.

“The Chinese Communist Party is today systematically erasing Islam in western China — bulldozing mosques and shrines, severely throttling all religious practice, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith,” Mr. Smith said. “Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have also exponentially increased persecution against all other religious believers — including Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners — in ways not seen since the cultural revolution,” he added.

The New Jersey lawmaker, who called Rep. McGovern’s opening statement “very good,” did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the call to consider a change in the law establishing USCIRF. 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, said that in her early days in the Congress, she was told she could not be a member of the House Judiciary Committee “on a particular hearing, because of my faith.”  

The Texas Democrat added, “It is our duty to be vigilant, diligent and to ensure that we are speaking and acting to protect those who engage in their innocent and sincere religious beliefs [and] do not harm others, but simply are there to provide them with that religious comfort.”

Along with USCIRF Chair Maenza, the panel heard from ChinaAid president Bob Fu; Baha’i spokesman Anthony N. Vance; Amjad Mahmood Khan of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA; Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria; and Gulzira Auelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim who survived months in several of China’s concentration camps.

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