Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Allegations of religious bias are being leveled against a notable federal body: the one responsible for monitoring international religious freedom.

Some past commissioners, staff and former staff of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom say the agency charged with advising the president and Congress is rife, behind-the-scenes, with ideology and tribalism, with commissioners focusing on pet projects that are often based on their own religious background. In particular, they say an anti-Muslim bias runs through the commission's work-- a charge denied by its chairman, Leonard Leo.

"I don't know of any other organization who defends as many Muslims in the world as we do," said Leo, who was appointed to the commission by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Nevertheless, the commission was hit this fall with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed by a former policy analyst, Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, who alleges that her contract was canceled because of her Muslim faith and her affiliation with a Muslim advocacy group.

The commission's six researchers signed a letter unsuccessfully urging their bosses to keep Ghori-Ahmad because of what they described as her strong résumé and the need for an analyst to cover the key region of South Asia. One researcher, Bridget Kustin, quit in protest, saying in her resignation letter that she would not "remain part of an organization that would be willing to engage in such discrimination."

Rumors about infighting and ineffectiveness have swirled for years around the commission, which was created by Congress in 1998 as part of the International Religious Freedom Act. The legislation, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, was championed primarily by Christian groups, along with people of Jewish, Bahai and other faiths, to get the government to pay more attention to religious persecution overseas and be an advocate for religious freedom in its foreign policy.

The commission's nine members, who are appointed by the president and congressional leaders of both parties, include two Catholics, two evangelical Protestants, one Southern Baptist, one Orthodox Christian, one Jew and one Muslim, with one vacancy. Their $4.3 million budget is used to research religious discrimination abroad, take fact-finding trips, hold public hearings, write an annual report, make policy recommendations and put out news releases.

Focus on Christians

From the start, critics say, the commission has disproportionately focused its efforts on the persecution of Christians, while too often ignoring other religious communities and downplaying their claims of persecution.

"It was predetermined who the bad guys are and who the good guys are," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a Muslim who served as a commissioner from 2003 to 2007 and teaches human rights at UCLA. "There is a very pronounced view of the world, and it is that victims of religious discrimination are invariably Christian. It was rather suffocating."

But current commissioners -- including an imam -- and some longtime religious-freedom activists denied the allegations of bias, pointing to actions the commission has taken on behalf of Muslims, particularly those from minority communities such as the Uighurs in China and the Ahmadis in Pakistan.

"I've not experienced any small act of discrimination towards me," said Imam Talal Eid, a longtime mosque leader in Massachusetts who was appointed to the commission in 2007 by Bush.

Nina Shea, a Catholic appointed by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in 1999, said the commission's work has saved thousands of lives. The commission doesn't put more emphasis on places like Western Europe and Israel -- which are among the places where critics have alleged a bias -- because the alleged persecution isn't as extreme as in places like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, Shea says.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company