When American pastor Andrew Brunson was imprisoned in Turkey, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) played a major role in spotlighting his case and eventually securing his release. USCIRF commissioners were the first Americans other than his family and local State Department staff to visit Brunson in prison. USCIRF commissioners witnessed his trial on allegedly trumped-up charges and sounded a media alarm, and a USCIRF commissioner accompanied him home.
But former USCIRF commissioner Kristina Arriaga says none of that would have occurred if senior members of the commission’s paid staff had gotten their way. The senior staff argued USCIRF was not permitted to advocate for Brunson, Arriaga told Christianity Today, because he was an American and the commission’s mandate is to advance international religious freedom. Nonetheless, the commission voted unanimously across party lines to overrule the staff and speak out.
That episode was just one example, Arriaga said, of how “some bureaucrats in USCIRF … want to control commissioners” in a way that could hamper religious liberty around the world. Now she is concerned that a proposed USCIRF reauthorization bill in the Senate signals bipartisan willingness by legislators to side with those bureaucrats. Even though the bill has been withdrawn, she has resigned from USCIRF in protest to highlight the problem.
“I felt that there had to be sort of a shock and awe campaign by going public to alert Democrats and Republicans who value USCIRF that this bill had been introduced in the dark,” said Arriaga, who was first appointed to USCIRF in 2016 by then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. She had a long career at the religious liberty legal firm Becket Fund, including as its executive director.
Arriaga’s resignation and an ensuing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal have stirred discussion, highlighting that Washington policymakers are at odds concerning the proper approach to international religious liberty.
Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), told CT Arriaga’s resignation “begs questions about how USCIRF is run” because of her “experience and expertise with religious freedom.”
Reports differ on the nature of the conflict. The Associated Press characterized it as “senators in both parties seeking increased oversight” on USCIRF “and commissioners in both parties balking.” Others say it’s part of a broader struggle, in which various offices across the US government are taking different approaches to religious liberty and international engagement.
Whatever the root of the disagreement, Arriaga says the world’s persecuted people of faith will be the biggest losers if it isn’t resolved.
USCIRF was created by a 1998 act of Congress to monitor religious liberty around the world and make policy recommendations to both the executive branch and Congress. USCIRF’s nine unpaid commissioners are appointed by Congress and the president under a scheme that effectively gives five slots to the party of the president and four to the other major party. Six votes are required to pass any recommendation, causing the commission to operate with bipartisan consensus. The independent commission lacks authority to enforce its recommendations but has achieved significant victories around the world.
In addition to its role in springing Brunson from incarceration, the commission has helped secure the release of other imprisoned people of faith and derailed unjust prosecutions of believers. Perhaps USCIRF’s most high-profile activities are its annual report on international religious liberty and its recommendations to the State Department of countries to classify as religious freedom violators.