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Jackie Wolcott (AP/Photo by David Karp, file)

Shunning irrelevance

Religion | With an uncertain future, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom hires a new executive director and looks to reassert its influence

WASHINGTON-The government watchdog on religious freedom issues, designed to speak independently of the U.S. State Department's diplomatic concerns, is in danger of fading out of existence.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a coalition of eight commissioners, has struggled for years with internal conflicts-each commissioner tends to have his or her pet religious freedom issues. Plus, dissenting members have undercut a number of the commission's recommendations in the past. In order to continue its work, the 12-year-old commission (created under President Bill Clinton) must be reauthorized by Congress next year. Last year, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., attempted to cut the commission's budget by half, but others like Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., defended the group and preserved its funding.

On Monday the commission named a new executive director, Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Security Council during the Bush administration-someone who may be able to build a stronger relationship with the State Department as well as Congress-she worked on Capitol Hill for nine years. Over the last couple years, the State Department has largely ignored USCIRF recommendations for certain countries to be placed on its religious freedom watch list. The commission has no authority to enforce sanctions and can only make recommendations to the State Department.

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"We need the cooperation of all parts of government," said Wolcott. "It's a lot of rabble rousing."

Wolcott added that the commission is anxious for President Obama to appoint the head of the international religious freedom office at the State Department-a post that has been left empty since he came into office. "That's an important signal from the administration," she said. The office issues the State Department's annual religious freedom report, including the list of "countries of particular concern," nations that the government considers to be the worst violators of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, one former USCIRF employee, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, filed a discrimination suit against the commission last year, alleging that the USCIRF ended her contract because she was Muslim. In the fallout from that lawsuit, other former staffers have complained that the commission has a pro-Christian bias. The commission is made up of two Catholics, three Protestants, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, a Jew, and a Muslim.

Leaders of both parties in Congress as well as the president can appoint commissioners. Six out of the eight commissioners are up for reappointment or replacement, and another seat is vacant.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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