Sitting across the table from Sudan’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, in December 2019 in Washington, D.C. and again in Khartoum in February, we were amazed by the changes his transitional government had made, and planned to make, to a country led for decades by a regime that was one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. After months of protesting in the streets in spite of brutal security forces, Sudan’s people had finally sparked a transition toward a democratic future, with a transitional government that was genuine about reforming oppressive policies, including those designed to persecute individuals because of their religion or belief.
Some may be surprised to learn that a discussion with a foreign head of state about religious freedom was led by political appointees from both the Republican and Democratic parties. As chair and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we were appointed, respectively, by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Even more, our bipartisan meeting with Prime Minister Hamdok was not an anomaly, but rather the norm when it comes to working on international religious freedom in Washington, D.C., and globally.
When Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) in the Senate by a vote of 98-0 and in the House, 375-41, the bipartisan support was abundantly clear. Among other things, IRFA created USCIRF, the first and only body of its kind in the world. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government agency that monitors religious freedom conditions abroad and is mandated to present policy recommendations to Congress, the Department of State and the White House. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the president and the leaders of both houses of the Congress, with the political party that holds the White House having five seats and the other party having four. By creating USCIRF and ensuring that its appointees came from both parties, Congress sought to ensure that international religious freedom would remain a bipartisan issue that would not get sidelined.