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United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2011

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I rise in support of H.R. 2867, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and Reauthorization Act, as amended by the Senate.

Religious freedom--the right to worship and practice one's faith according to the dictates of one's own conscience--is a foundational human right. Many have called religious freedom the first freedom. Not only is it the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it is intrinsic to the human dignity of every man and woman on this earth.

However, it is a right denied or curtailed for many--and according to some estimates, most--people in the world.

For Copts in Egypt, Uighurs in China, Montagnards in Central Vietnam, Jews and Baha'i in Iran, many Buddhist monks in Burma, and countless millions elsewhere, the ability to live their faith without threat of persecution is a distant and unrealized promise.

Dr. Brian Grim, a witness at a recent hearing I held on religious freedom, has done significant research in this area. In a study he conducted in 2009, he found that nearly 70 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion. His study specifically cited Iran, Pakistan, China, and Egypt as among the most repressive of religious expression. This is significant not only because it highlights the number of people denied this most fundamental of human rights, but also because religious freedom is comprised of a ``bundle of rights.'' Religious freedom implies freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly, and even freedom of the press. Absent freedom of religion, all these other rights are in jeopardy.

In fact, Dr. Grim's research shows that countries that respect these rights reap a host of socio-economic benefits, including better education, better health care, greater equity of pay between men and women, and higher GDP, and these benefits arguably lead to greater social stability. On the other hand, countries without respect for religious freedom do worse on these socio-economic indicators, have greater societal tension, and are more prone to instability. The importance of promoting all components of religious freedom therefore cannot be overstated. Not only is it a moral imperative, but religious freedom keeps extremism and tyranny at bay.

For these reasons, U.S. leadership on religious freedom is desperately needed in many countries around the world, together with a more vigorous utilization of the means provided in the IRF Act for promoting religious human rights.

I was pleased to work with my good friend from Virginia (Mr. WOLF) and to chair the Committee hearings and markup fourteen years ago that led to the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Act provided our Administration with the tools necessary to make international religious freedom an integral component of the highest priority in U.S. foreign policy.

Contrary to assertions that singling out religious freedom would somehow make it seem more important or separated from other fundamental human rights--the Clinton Administration asserted that its strong opposition to the Act was based on its belief that the Act would result in a ``hierarchy of rights''--those of us who championed the bill argued that it was necessary to ensure that religious freedom is given its rightful place within the framework of human rights promotion.

The law provided a new and bipartisan focus, which has begun to grant religious freedom its rightful stature in the diplomatic and foreign policy of the United States, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was and is an important part of that effort. It was created as an independent body of experts to review the facts and make policy recommendations from a vantage point outside of our diplomatic corps, where bilateral and other concerns had sometimes resulted in the soft-pedaling of severe, ongoing violations of religious freedom around the world.

Even today, when the quality of State Department reporting on religious freedom issues has improved, the Commission continues to serve a critical role as a sounding board and a catalyst.

One indicator is the fact that the Commission's list of recommended ``Countries of Particular Concern'' for severe violations of religious remains larger than the number designated by the State Department.

In September, Secretary Clinton rightfully designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as CPCs.

But the State Department's list does not add any new countries from last year, and glaringly omits Vietnam, whose policies have more than earned that badge of shame.

Secretary Clinton also did not designate Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan as recommended by the Commission.

We need the Commission more than ever. Already in the Congress, we have had six comprehensive hearings on religious freedom: Two in the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission regarding the religious freedom of minorities in the Middle East, especially Egypt; two on the Committee I chair regarding the prioritization of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, and two in the Helsinki Commission on the particular plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

The Commission has been an invaluable resource to Congress as we monitor the protection and promotion of religious freedom around the world--and the response of the Administration on this very important issue.

They have also been a resource to governments seeking how to remedy religious freedom abuses within their own borders. For instance, in Indonesia, the Commission worked with members of the Indonesian House of Representatives and civil society groups who introduced measures to strengthen provisions in the criminal code regarding attacks on religious gatherings and amend the law governing the building of religious venues.

The Commission also continues to help network human rights and legal advocates in Indonesia working to defend individuals accused of ``blasphemy'' and religious minorities facing intimidation and violence from extremist groups. The Commission's work in Indonesia will have practical impact on the exercise of human rights--and preservation of peace--in Indonesia.

Other governments have looked to the Commission as a model for their own religious freedom Commissions.

The bill before us includes a number of bipartisan reforms to Commission authorities and operations to make their work even more effective.

I want to thank Chairman ROS-LEHTINEN and Ranking Member BERMAN for working to bring to the floor this important bill, which deserves unanimous support. And I would like to extend a special thanks to Representative WOLF, whose tireless efforts on this legislation have brought hope to persecuted people across the world.


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