“Lives Are at Stake”

Bettina Krause May/June 2024
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A Rabbi, a Reverend, and the Power of Bipartisanship

An interview with the chair and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

(Photo: USCIRF commissioners meet with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Commission is charged with advising Congress, the U.S. Secretary of State, and the President on religious freedom concerns abroad.)

It seems strange that an influential commission created by the United States Congress to focus on religious freedom is far more likely to create headlines internationally than at home. Countries, from China to India to Nigeria, avidly track the activities of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a body that has been monitoring religious freedom violations around the world for the past 25 years. But within the United States? Even those who’ve heard of USCIRF may not be entirely sure why it exists or what it does.

The commission is uniquely American; no other nation has an equivalent. It’s publicly funded but operates independently, and is made up of nine political appointees—men and women of different faiths who, on paper, seem distinctly ill-matched. Each brings his or her own perspective, often shaped by marked differences in politics, beliefs, and background. Yet against the odds, they find consensus on often-divisive issues of U.S. policy.

Rabbi Abraham D. Cooper is associate dean and director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a leading Jewish human rights organization. His advocacy work has spanned five decades and five continents; in this cause, he regularly meets with world leaders and has earned an international reputation for building high-level friendships and alliances.

Orthodox rabbi Abraham Cooper, the current chair of the commission, was appointed by the Senate minority leader, Republican senator Mitch McConnell. Presbyterian minister Reverend Frederick A. Davie serves as vice chair. He was appointed to the commission by the Senate majority leader, Democratic senator Charles Schumer. Together with seven other commissioners, and supported by a nonpartisan professional staff, Cooper and Davie deliver annual foreign policy recommendations to the White House, Congress, and the U.S. State Department based on their assessment of countries engaged in religious freedom violations. And in doing so, they play an outsize role in shaping and driving the global conversation around religious freedom.

They also tend to gain international notoriety. Commissioners have been personally sanctioned by the Chinese and Russian governments. They’ve been named and vilified in foreign news reports. Earlier this year, Chair Cooper made news after government officials in Saudi Arabia demanded he remove his kippah while on a fact-finding visit to the country. He politely refused, and the delegation cut short its visit.

Liberty editor Bettina Krause recently talked with Chair Cooper and Vice Chair Davie about the work of USCIRF, and about how it maintains its remarkable track record of bipartisan collaboration.

Bettina Krause: Each USCIRF commissioner is a leader in their own right, and each represents their own faith tradition. And yet you’re expected to find consensus on issues. How does that dynamic work?

Chair Cooper: You’re right about different religious traditions, but to make it more fun, three commissioners are appointed by the executive branch—the president—and then the remaining six commissioners are appointed by the top Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate and House. So you have religious diversity but also certain political realities.


Reverend Frederick A. Davie, a nationally renowned leader in community and faith-based advocacy, is senior strategic advisor to the president at Union Theological Seminary, where he had served as executive vice president for a decade. Through Davie’s many years of public service, he’s served on President Obama’s transition team, the White House Faith Council, and the New York City Racial Justice Commission, and currently chairs the New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government.

I can only talk for the nine other commissioners I’ve interacted with over this past almost two years. Every one of us has a strongly held worldview and political views. But we are looking at human rights through the prism of religious freedom, and the situations involving threats to religious freedom are so dire in so many countries. I think we all just feel an overwhelming moral obligation to try to live up to the aims and purpose of the original legislation [the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998].

And by the way, if we somehow forget, one of our commissioners is Frank Wolf, the guy who wrote the legislation 25 years ago when he was a congressman. We all call him our moral GPS.

So the politics are there, and they will occasionally seep in. But at the end of the day, we sit down with a communal purpose. Our staff helps gives us perspective, but there’s also the daily headlines from around the world, or the fact that we have a fellow commissioner [Uyghur-American lawyer Nury Turkel] whose mother is a Uyghur, and his mom is stuck in Beijing. I think all these elements combined, at least for our group, creates a shared sense of purpose. Yes, we are mandated to be bipartisan, but the good news is that I’ve felt, throughout my tenure, that it just works for us.

Vice Chair Davie: The bipartisanship does feel organic, and I think it’s because we have a singular mission. As our founder, the former congressman and now commissioner, Frank Wolf, has said, it is a mission to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is a priority in U.S. foreign policy. That’s the framework and the filter by which we assess everything that we do, and these are great guardrails. They keep us from going too far on tangents or into areas where we don’t have a mandate to be. Any controversial issue we confront has to be analyzed within those guardrails. We also refer to established conventions—both Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These provide concrete principles that guide what we do. So as long as we stay focused on that primary mission, and we’re governed and guided by the conventions and covenants that define this work on an international stage, it makes our bipartisanship and the commission that much more effective.

Krause: You’ve touched on my next question. There’s two pieces of criticism I sometimes hear leveled at USCIRF. The first is that it’s an attempt to impose an American framework of religious freedom on other countries. And the second relates to USCIRF’s effectiveness—that USCIRF is simply calling out other countries, “naming and shaming” them. How would you respond to that?

Cooper: If you expect a pat on the back and a victory parade when you become a commissioner, you’ve applied for the wrong job. I don’t apologize for the fact that I’m an American. And yes, sometimes we just rub people the wrong way by virtue of the fact we’re American. I’m Jewish, so that’s strike two. We have the vice chair, he’s also a person of color. I make no apologies for trying to take religious freedom and putting it front and center, because religious freedom is not an American-born or -created right, it’s a God-given right. We’re lucky enough to live in a country that allows us to create platforms, such as USCIRF, to help remind people of that around the world—whether that’s in China, or North Korea, or Vietnam.

The most powerful tool we, as a commission, have is that no country—whether it’s India or Azerbaijan—likes to be recommended as a country of particular concern (CPC) or be placed on the special watch list (SWL). CPC designation can lead, and even the debate over CPC can lead, to sanctions. And when you’re talking about sanctions, that’s where things get serious.

The fact is that some countries respond to being named by trying to create a firewall against the work of human rights activists, religious freedom activists, and those of us from USCIRF. This is true for Vietnam, for instance, where the vice chair visited recently, and we’ve had interactions with other Communist countries as well. Or take the hearings we just held on religious freedom in India—we knew we’d get pushback, but we needed to take a look. The realities on the ground there were just too disturbing. But the fact that we are feeling all this pushback means that our work is relevant.

The commissioners understand this. We understand that we’re doing this because there are lives at stake; there are fundamental freedoms at stake.

Davie: Regarding your first question—are we imposing Western values on other countries? Well, almost every country we engage with has signed on to international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and most also have some notion of human rights and religious freedom enshrined in their own governing documents. These are objective touch points. We are simply appealing to them to do what they said they were going to do; trying to hold them accountable to that as a part of U.S. foreign policy.

In terms of our effectiveness, I would simply say: talk to some of the people living in the countries where USCIRF is doing work, and hear their perspective. Just today I spoke about Nigeria at an international religious freedom summit, and I barely had time to eat a sandwich because of the number of people coming up to say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. It would be exponentially worse for people in our country if an entity like USCIRF did not exist.” We’re never going to have the power of the State Department, but that’s not our purpose. We’re an agency that’s set up by virtue of our mission to be a voice for people who would otherwise find themselves severely repressed in their efforts to exercise basic and fundamental rights. And those folks keep affirming that we’re doing something of value. That’s all the validation I need when it comes to this work.

I think our nation is very fortunate to have an agency like this one and a government that supports it. We’re fortunate to have the kind of pluralism and diversity that’s represented on this commission, and the opportunity to work together to advance some of these values and principles.

Krause: How has your service on the commission changed your perspective? Has it either expanded or materially changed how you look at this issue of religious freedom?

Cooper: I grew up involved in a human rights movement called the Soviet Jewry movement—there were three million Jews trapped in a cultural genocide behind what was then thought to be the impregnable iron curtain of the Soviet Union. The Jewish world had also just lost a third of its people in the Holocaust.

One of the most powerful experiences that I had during that time, over and over, was the sense of bipartisanship that developed very strongly in the U.S. Congress and within other democracies as they came together on this. And there was the same bipartisanship, also, coming forth in the form of support from leaders from other faiths. In that sense we got spoiled in the twentieth century, only to wake up now to this new reality.

But nonetheless, once you experience, as an American, the power of bipartisanship and the power of having many faiths working together on behalf of a common cause . . . well, we saw what happened with the end of the Soviet Union. We didn’t cause it, but we were a little piece of it. And that, to me, why, my faith comes bubbling to the surface now, even at a time when bipartisanship seems broken on Capitol Hill. Those of us who have previously experienced the power of “allyship”—what happens when you can bring together a broader team—that, to me, is a source of hope and also a source of inspiration.

But a lesson I’ve learned from my time at USCIRF is that the situation globally for religious freedom is much, much more dire than any of us really are prepared to deal with. The truth is that USCIRF needs about 10 times the funding it currently has. Right now we’re reporting on 28 countries. We should probably be looking at least triple that number. But to do that, you can’t just look at the latest newspaper article and start talking. You have the responsibility to reach out to the people who are running those countries, to enter into discussion and dialogue, and bring our perspective to the table. To do that, we need an increased budget.

Then another lesson I’ve learned is that all of us—people of faith and no faith—need to face up to the encroachments of technology on our freedoms. We have to protect ourselves from the encroachment of China and other players—Iran and Russia, which are already leveraging North Korea—and the technologies they have that can chip away at our freedoms and our fundamental rights in society. The U.S. Congress and other countries are already deeply concerned about how national sovereignty can be breached through the use of technologies that are being applied from thousands and thousands of miles away. These are technologies that assault the privacy of perceived enemies of a state, because of their religious beliefs, both within the borders of that state, but outside its borders as well. China is doing this, but it’s obviously spreading like wildfire to other countries as well.

At USCIRF we’ve been on the front lines of recognizing technology as a religious freedom issue. We have a great staff, and we have smart commissioners who bring their own life experiences and particular expertise and concerns. And together we can begin to crack open these new areas, such as technology, that are challenging not just for religious freedom but for human rights more broadly. So I’ve learned a lot from my time with USCIRF, and it’s been very humbling.

Krause: Reverend Davie, has your perspective changed?

Davie: What’s different from this vantage point? One, the fact that many, if not most, of the international crises we’re facing have a religious dimension. And two, that there is resistance in many parts of our own government, and also in other parts of the world, to actually understand and appreciate these religious dimensions. We’ll call out a crisis in a country—take Nigeria, for example, where 210 Christians are killed over the course of a Christmas—and the religious dimensions of that will not be talked about by either our government or theirs. And that’s an issue.

I would also echo what the chair said about technology and transnational repression. We’re just beginning to see what it can do. We met yesterday with representatives from Nicaragua, people who have been exiled or oppressed. They’re experiencing intimidation right here in the United States for the positions they’re taking. That is uncalled for, and it’s something we shouldn’t allow to stand. But I think we’re seeing just the early stages of this use of technology, and it’s only going to get worse.

I appreciate targeted sanctions, and I think we need to do more with them. We have the Global Magnitsky Act.* I think we should embrace that and really do more to make these individual actors feel the pain as a result of the ways in which they’re oppressing their people.

And then the final thing I would say is that the United States is still a beacon for what’s possible, despite all our problems.

We were meeting recently with the ambassador of a country, and it was right after some act of violence that had taken place against a religious institution here in the United States. And the ambassador raised this. He brought it up first thing. He cited the attack and said, “You’ve come to me to talk about religious freedom in my country, but what about religious freedom here in the U.S.?” But then he answered his own question. He said, “Well, I guess the difference is that you have the infrastructure to deal with it.”

And that’s exactly right—we do. It’s built into who we are, and, as imperfect as it is, it serves as a model of what’s possible for other places. We shouldn’t underestimate this, and we should leverage this as much as we can.

Let me say one final thing. As a country, we have a level of moral authority that we should work to protect. I think we need to be very careful going forward in how we do business and how we present ourselves. I think this commission serves as an example for that, because there is, in many ways, nothing more powerful than that moral authority. We should look to enhance it, as this commission is conscious of trying to do, but throughout the rest of government as well.

*The Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 allows the U.S. president to personally sanction foreign government officials who are known human rights abusers. Sanctions include freezing their U.S. assets and banning them from entering the country.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.