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

A hearing designed to spotlight a global crisis in religious freedom featuring testimony from a woman tortured in Chinese prisons, frontline reports from a Nigerian bishop whose parishioners face Islamist persecution, and other reports was apparently hijacked Tuesday by a Democratic Congressman’s opening statement.

Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, said 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.

But such a change would require amending the 23-year-old International Religious Freedom Act. Current USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza said this would turn the bipartisan human rights panel into a “political” body with diminished global influence.

Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican and the commission’s co-chairman, said Mr. McGovern’s unexpected remarks were “the first I heard” of the idea.

He said they diverted attention from an international religious freedom hearing by the House of Representatives Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

The hearing was timed to coincide with the inaugural 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington and co-chaired by former Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback and former USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett.

Mr. Smith and Mr. McGovern co-chair the Lantos Commission panel, established in 2008 to promote, defend and advocate for international human rights, its website states.

“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 Tuesday.

“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,” he said.

Prefacing his suggestion with “a call for humility,” Mr. McGovern declared that “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 before updating his criticisms of the U.S.

“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,” Mr. McGovern said.

He continued, citing the threat of Christian theocrats taking over the U.S. government.

“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,” Mr. McGovern said.

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.”

That would detract from the panel’s mission, she said.

“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,” she added.

After a day of hearings, committee markups, and other House business, Mr. Smith told a reporter that “the absolute reason for the hearing was to showcase some of the people who can speak about what’s happening to their community,” not Mr. McGovern’s suggestion.

Mr. Smith mentioned the testimony of Gulzira Auelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh Muslim who survived months in several of China’s concentration camps.

“We had a woman that has actually been tortured for well over a year. She saw horrible rapes in Xinjiang. And talked about it in a way that motivates and inspires us to do more,” he said.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Smith drew particular attention to 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.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat 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.”  

“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,” she said.

Along with Ms. Maenza and Ms. Auelkhan, the panel heard from ChinaAid president Bob Fu; Baha’i spokesman Anthony N. Vance; Amjad Mahmood Khan of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA; and Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria.

After describing a string of terrorist attacks and murders in Nigeria, Bishop Kukah declared that Islam per se was not at fault.

“It is important to restate even though the purveyors of terrorism, banditry, kidnapping and murders of our people continue to appeal to Islam as their source of inspiration, what we are dealing with is the Jihadist/Salafist supremacist strain of the faith that is at best a cancer that threatens the Muslim world itself,” the Catholic prelate said.

Mr. Fu, a victim of Chinese persecution who fled the country to work for freedom in the West, decried the Xi government’s “Sinicization” efforts aimed at converting Christian faith into one more compliant with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“Even though the CCP tries to conceal the brutal reality about its ongoing, intensified religious persecution and human rights abuses, victims and their family members recount real-life, horrendous experiences,” Mr. Fu said.