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Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias

Others who work or used to work for the commission said advocacy for Muslims and the balance typically evident in the commission's public statements are due to the professional staff.

"When anti-Muslim violence is mentioned, it's usually because staff forces it," said Kustin, 26, a South Asia researcher for the commission until she resigned in July to protest commissioners withdrawing Ghori-Ahmad's contract. "The staff compensates for the biases of the commissioners."

Asked about views

Ghori-Ahmad declined to comment for this story. When she was hired by the commission last spring, she was government-affairs director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Muslim-advocacy group that works with federal justice agencies but has sometimes been accused of being too soft on Islamic extremism.

EEOC complaints are private, and neither Ghori-Ahmad nor her lawyers would detail her allegations. But people who are familiar with the complaint said that she was asked about the Middle East -- not her expertise -- allegedly to gauge her sentiment on controversial Muslim issues in the region, including Israel. Once the commissioners found out more about her, her contract was revoked, her complaint alleges.

After a staff outcry, the commissioners offered her a 90-day contract, which she took and completed from July to October. She was forbidden during that time, the sources said, to work on Pakistan -- one of her main areas of expertise. Ghori-Ahmad filed the EEOC complaint toward the end of her stint, alleging that she was not hired because of her religion and affiliation with the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Commissioners and their attorney declined to comment on the pending case. But in a July e-mail to commissioners, Leo says Ghori-Ahmad was let go because the executive director who hired her had just left and his replacement would want to make such hires himself or herself. However, Kustin and others close to the commission say that other people hired by the same man did not have their jobs revoked and that at least two more staff hires were made by the current, temporary executive director.

As with other congressionally created bodies, the commission is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so meetings and internal communications are private. With commissioners allowed to focus on any issue, their work is vulnerable to charges of arbitrariness.

Was the commission's extensive work condemning textbooks used by a Saudi-run private Islamic school in Northern Virginia a legitimate international issue or an example of anti-Muslim bias? Is the commission's decision not to speak out for two years against efforts in Switzerland to ban minarets evidence of bias or of its desire to focus on harsher oppression elsewhere? Was hand-delivering a New Testament Bible to a Catholic priest in a Vietnamese prison the moral thing for a commissioner to do or a public-relations blunder for a country already seen by some as on a Christian crusade?

Not enough of an impact

"You could make an argument for or against almost any issue. This criticism that any one tradition dominates is a red herring," said Thomas Farr, who teaches religion and foreign policy at Georgetown University and writes extensively on international religious freedom.

Farr has a different criticism of the commission, one shared by others: that it hasn't made enough of an impact and is ignored by U.S. policymakers.

One of its congressional champions, U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), said he wishes the commission had been given more authority by Congress--such as to levy sanctions--and calls it "a canary in a coal mine."

Other lawmakers are more skeptical of the commission. Last spring, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) made a failed attempt to cut the commission's budget by half. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, unsuccessfully sought more oversight of the commission -- an issue that may come up again next year when Congress considers whether to extend its life beyond its sunset date in 2011.

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