The National Association of Evangelicals played a major role in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which was signed into law 20 years ago on October 27, 1998.
In 1996, the NAE issued its Statement of Conscience on Worldwide Religious Persecution, calling on the United States to make religious freedom a priority goal of our foreign policy, to publish detailed reports on religious persecution, and to withhold aid from countries that continued to persecute. Each of these goals was addressed in the version of IRFA that Congress eventually passed.
The wisdom of addressing religious persecution may seem obvious, but IRFA faced substantial opposition when it was first proposed by Rep. Frank Wolf and Sen. Arlan Specter. Some were concerned about obstacles to trade with unsavory governments, while others argued that religious rights should not be elevated above other concerns. In the end, a broad coalition of religious freedom advocates prevailed, and the bill passed by voice vote in both chambers.
IRFA requires the State Department to make the promotion of religious freedom a significant goal of our foreign policy. It established the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, who heads the Office of International Religious Freedom. The office is required to produce an annual report analyzing the state of religious freedom in each country in the world. This comprehensive document has become an important resource for religious freedom advocates pushing for an end to religious persecution. Countries that commit “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” are named as “countries of particular concern” and are subject to political and economic sanctions, though these can be waived by the president.
IRFA also created a bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom as an independent watchdog responsible to monitor the status of religious freedom around the world. USCIRF commissioners are named by the president and congressional leaders. Former NAE President Don Argue served as a commissioner from 2007 to 2011 and as vice chair from 2011 to 2012. USCIRF creates its own annual report and recommends countries that should be designated and sanctioned by the State Department.