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Agency that monitors religious freedom abroad accused of bias

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; A11

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.

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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