USCIRF commissioner indicted
Charges are the latest tumult for embattled international religious freedom commission
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Federal prosecutors have indicted a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), raising new questions about the commission’s effectiveness and future.
On Tuesday the Department of Justice unsealed charges against Ahmad “Andy” Khawaja for helping conceal $3.5 million in donations to groups supporting Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. Prosecutors say Khawaja, who owns an online payment company, conspired with seven others named in the 53-count indictment, including Republican power broker George Nader.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., appointed Khawaja to the nine-member USCIRF panel in 2018. His term expires next May, but he is eligible for another two-year term.
Khawaja’s indictment comes at a tenuous moment for USCIRF, which monitors religious freedom worldwide and advises the president, the secretary of state, and Congress. USCIRF funding is set to run out this month, if Congress does not act.
Lawmakers recently pulled a controversial reauthorization bill after critics said it would turn “a watchdog into a lapdog.” Commissioner Kristina Arriaga resigned in protest over the direction of the negotiations.
“She was the most respected person on that commission worldwide, because of her experience over the years leading a religious freedom organization [Becket Fund for Religious Liberty] and her travels,” said Chris Seiple, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Christian Studies at the University of Washington.
Khawaja’s legal trouble adds fuel to ongoing debates about reforming the commission—although there’s fierce disagreement about what reform should look like.
Republicans complain that Democratic appointments such as Khawaja and Gayle Manchin—Sen. Joe Manchin’s wife—make it appear commission seats are available to unqualified, politically connected figures. They also argue USCIRF’s executive director, Erin Singshinsuk, has too much power and lacks sufficient background in international religious freedom issues.
Cliff May, a Republican-appointed USCIRF commissioner from 2016 to 2018, accused Singshinsuk of partisanship in a recent Washington Times op-ed. After questioning a potential hire, Singshinsuk “warned me that I would be violating his rights were I even to suggest disqualifying him on the basis of his politics. But of course she had taken his politics into account when she selected him.”
Meanwhile, Democrats complain that recent Republican appointments (Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Johnnie Moore) are all white, evangelical males who support President Donald Trump—adding to the perception that the commission exists primarily for Christians.
Democrats also want limits on commissioner travel after Johnnie Moore spent Sept. 11 visiting with Saudi Arabia’s embattled Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—and subsequently praised him publicly. (Saudi Arabia, known for its oppression of religious minorities, is one of the countries USCIRF monitors.)
Seiple, co-founder of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, said Khawaja’s indictment adds to the momentum for a “strategic pause.” He’s calling for a blue ribbon panel to evaluate USCIRF, the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF), and the Office of Strategic and Religious Engagement, which was recently brought under the IRF office.
Another consideration is how all of this affects U.S. foreign policy decisions. Last month Politico reported that the Trump administration may tie foreign aid to how a country treats its religious minorities.
Seiple said that would bring government policy in line with the original intent of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which created USCIRF.
Meantime, Seiple proposes Congress extend USCIRF funding for one year while a strategic review takes place. He said policymakers should ask why persecution and religious nationalism are worse problems today than they were two decades ago.
“We’ve got to figure this out,” he said. “It’s a moral imperative that we look at ourselves and address our strategy and structure to reduce religious violations around the world. Otherwise, we’re a part of the problem.”
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