International Religious Freedom Act of 1998

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International Religious Freedom Act of 1998
Great Seal of the United States
Long title An act to establish an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring, to provide for the imposition of sanctions against countries engaged in a pattern of religious persecution, and for other purposes.
Enacted by the 105th United States Congress
Public law 105–292
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the House as H.R. 2431 by Frank Wolf on September 8, 1997
  • Passed the House on May 14, 1998 (
  • Passed the Senate on October 9, 1998 (
  • Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 27, 1998

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Public Law 105–292, as amended by Public Law 106–55, Public Law 106–113, Public Law 107–228, Public Law 108–332, and Public Law 108–458)[1] was passed to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the United States, and to advocate on the behalf of the individuals viewed as persecuted in foreign countries on the account of religion. The Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 27, 1998.[2][3] Three cooperative entities have been maintained by this act to monitor religious persecution.

  1. An Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State,
  2. A bipartisan United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and
  3. A Special Adviser on International Religious Freedom within the National Security Council.[3]

While the original bill imposed mandatory sanctions on the countries supporting religious persecution, the amended act offers the president a waiver provision if he feels that it would further the goal of the bill or promote the interests of U.S. national security not to impose measures on a designated country.


This Act was a response to the growing concern about religious persecution throughout the world. There had been instances of toleration on the part of the governments when the religious rights of their citizens and others had been violated. There are governments around the world which openly sponsor and tolerate restrictions on their citizens' right to practice, observe, study, or associate with other members of their religious faith.

The former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, John Shattuck, cited specific countries that fail to recognize the fundamental right of religious freedom. There is a civil war ensuing in Sudan because of the ruling party's intolerance of opposing religions.[4] The Chinese Catholics and Chinese Protestant groups battle government repression, and the Chinese government tightly regulates religious practices in the regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.[5] Members of the Rohingya Muslim minority are forced to take refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. There are suspect cases of minority oppression in Europe as well. Russia's new religion law seeks to make restraints and inhibit new religious communities' ability to own property, publish literature or operate schools.[6] This Act tries to recognize such kind of blatant forms of religious discrimination and oppression. It finds that over one-half of the population of the world lives under regimes that have strict policies against basic religious freedoms. Title VII of the Act has noted that some regimes engage in persecution that includes subjection of those people who engage in practice of religious faiths that are not state sponsored, to detention, torture, beatings, forced marriage, rape, imprisonment, enslavement, mass resettlement and death. Senator Don Nickles (R-OK) in his speech to the Congress on October 2, 1998 stated:

[…]this is an important aspect of the bill. If the definition of religious persecution were limited to only torture, imprisonment, or death, […] the Act would only cover about a few countries, and would not include about 80 to 85% of the religious persecution that takes place in the world […]

This Act was first introduced as H.R. 2431 by Representative Frank Wolf to the House of Representatives on September 9, 1997. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) concurrently introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 772. The legislation was passed on May 14, 1998, by a vote of 375-41, and was subsequently sent to the Senate. Under consideration, this Act was proposed to be modified by Senator Nickles.

The primary aim of the modification was to allow the president to have more flexibility in responding to countries that violated the Act. The Nickles Bill offered the president a waiver provision if he feels that it would promote the interest of the U.S. national security to not impose measures on a designated country. The Senate agreed to the propositions on October 9, 1998, approved by H.R. 2431 as amended by a vote of 98-0.


The Act has seven titles, each containing numerous sections. These are:

  • Title I—Department of State Activity
  • Title II—Commission on International Religious Freedom
  • Title III—National Security Council
  • Title IV—Presidential Actions
  • Title V—Promotion of Religious Freedom
  • Title VI—Refugee, Asylum, and Consular Matters
  • Title VII—Miscellaneous Provisions

Scope and substance of the Act

As per the Act, the Congress and the President are obligated to take into account the various issues of religious freedom while developing the country's foreign policy. As under the Title I of the Act, a bureaucratic infrastructure is created for dealing with religious issues. This is known as the Office of the International Religious Freedom which is regulated under the US Department of State. Title II creates the Commission on International Religious Freedom and Title III a special advisor to the president on international religious freedom within the National Security Council. The crux of the Act lies in Title IV. Title IV details the possible options available to the president and his actions based upon them in response to the states which violate the provisions under the Act. Under Sec. 401(b)(1), the President shall identify specific countries that the Commission on International Religious Freedom designates as having obstructed religious freedom. The president must then, with the consultation of the secretary of state, the ambassador at large, the National Security Council special advisor, and the commission, design a response to those countries.[7]

Countries that are severe violators of religious freedom are categorized under Sec 402 of the Act and this subjects them to punitive sanctions which are listed in Sec. 405. Under this section, the president must either enter into a binding agreement with the concerned country to end the religious persecution, or to choose from remedies outlined in Sec. 405 of the Act. This section offers the president fifteen options to exercise against countries engaging in religious persecution. These include

  • a private or a public demarche;
  • a private or public condemnation;
  • the delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges;
  • the denial, delay, or cancellation of working, official or state visits;
  • the withdrawing, limitation, or suspension of some forms of U.S. aid;
  • direction to public and private international institutions to deny assistance;
  • and sanctions prohibiting the US government from entering into import or export agreements with the designated governments.[7]

Under Title IV, the president may waiver punitive measures against the concerned country. This would allow the president in balancing of the objectives of the bill with other US Foreign Policy interests. The Title V of the act seeks to promote religious freedom abroad through the way of international media, exchanges and foreign service awards for working to promote human rights. The Immigration and Naturalization Service officials are trained under the venues of Title VI of the Act.

The final provision of the Act, Title VII contains miscellaneous provisions, including 701, which urges transnational corporations to adopt codes of conduct sensitive to the right to freedom of religion.[7]

Office of International Religious Freedom

The Office of International Religious Freedom was formed under Title I of the International Religious Freedom Act, within the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.[8] This office has the mission of promoting religious freedom as a core objective of US foreign policy. The main functions of the Ambassador-at-large, the Office Director and the staff monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries.[9]

The United States seeks to conform with international covenants that guarantee the inalienable right of religious freedom to every human being. The Act is committed to the promotion of freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right and a source of stability for all countries. It further seeks to assist newly formed democracies in implementing freedom of religion and conscience. Religious and human rights non-governmental organizations are sought to promote religious freedom. Furthermore, the U.S. seeks to identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors of their citizens or others on the basis of religious beliefs.[9]

The Office is responsible for the monitoring of religious persecution and discrimination worldwide. Its specific activities include:

  1. It makes the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which is submitted to the Congress annually by the Department of State in compliance with Section 102(b) of the Act. This report supplements the most recent Human Rights Reports. It includes individual country chapters on the status of religious freedom.[10]
  2. On the basis of these annual reports, the Secretary of State will designate any country that commits systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom as a Country of Particular Concern or CPC. States so designated are subject to further actions, including economic sanctions by the United States.
  3. Meetings are organized with foreign government officials at all levels, as well as religious and human rights groups in the United States and abroad, to address the problem of religious freedom.
  4. A testimony is made before the United States Congress, on issues of international religious freedom.
  5. Maintaining a close cooperation with the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
  6. Sponsorship of reconciliation programs in disputes that divide groups along lines of religious beliefs. The office seeks to support NGOs that are promoting reconciliation in such disputes.
  7. Outreach programs to American religious communities.[9]

Commission on International Religious Freedom

This commission is an independent nine-member, bipartisan U.S. government agency that was created to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and the United States Congress.[11] This commission is funded entirely by the federal government on an annual basis and staffed by government employees.

The Commission is responsible for determining the effect of other countries' policies on religious groups, and if necessary, holding Congressional hearings to educate Congress and the public about religious persecution around the world. The Commission may not implement sanctions on countries that violate religious freedom as it only has advisory and monitoring authority, including the authority to hold hearings. While the Department of State report contains a detailed country-by-country analysis of religious freedom, the Commission's report covers few countries, but makes policy recommendations to the executive and legislative branches of the government. The Commission report also reviews and analyzes the work of Department of State.[3]

Special Advisor on International Religious Freedom

The President is assigned a special advisor on international religious freedom within the National Security Council by Title III of the Act. Under the Act, the special advisor is designated to serve as a resource for executive branch officials, compiling and analyzing information on the facts and circumstances of violations of religious freedom and formulating possible US reactions to religious persecution in the light of US national security interests. The position of the director shall be comparable to that of the director within the executive office of the President.[9]

Justification and legal basis

This Act has been justified by the US Congress on the basis of constitutional and international law principles. Several of the sponsors of the bill have expressed that the United States was born out of the need for religious freedom and that this principle was codified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment explicitly guarantees the fundamental right of religious freedom and liberty to practice any faith as according to one's choice. Their contention made, to this is that the United States has the duty to uphold this fundamental right. During a speech about the Act, on October 9, 1998, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), gave the reason as to why the founding fathers were drawn to America,

...because of a belief that no government has the right to tell the people how to worship and certainly not the right to discriminate against them or persecute them for the way they chose to express their faith in God.

Lieberman believed that by supporting this act the US Citizens could honor the country's founders for creating the first amendment to the Constitution.

The principles of international law were made inherent in the act so as to clarify its commitment to promote international religious freedom. As per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), religious freedom is one of the most fundamental human rights outlined. This right explicitly includes the freedom to change religious faith or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance." All the members of the United Nations have adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the virtue of their UN membership and are pledged to uphold its provisions. The Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was ratified with reservations in April 1992, also includes a freedom of religion clause similar to that of the UDHR's. The principles in the above-mentioned international law documents, according to the Act, create a sense of responsibility in its governments to protect the freedom of religion, which the Act does by exercising the United States' ability to choose its limit in dealing with countries that violate religious freedom.

The justification for this Act lies on the guarantee of freedom of religion found in the US Constitution and in principles of international law. Critics of this Act would probably contend that while the US Constitution does prohibit Federal and State governments from infringing on the religious liberties of people living within the US, it does not obligate or permit the US to use embargo or military intervention as means to uphold these rights abroad.

Related legislation

On February 10, 2014, Rep. Grace Meng introduced the bill To amend the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the desecration of cemeteries among the many forms of violations of the right to religious freedom (H.R. 4028; 113th Congress) in the United States House of Representatives.[12] The bill would amend the findings of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 by including the desecration of cemeteries among the various violations of the right to religious freedom.[12][13] Meng said that "this legislation would be a new and important tool in our fight against the desecration of cemeteries" because it would "combat religiously-motivated vandalism of cemeteries and also prevent developers from building over cemeteries, a new and emerging threat in places where there are no Jewish communities left to protect burial grounds."[14]

On May 9, 2014, Rep. Steve Stockman introduced the European Union Religious Freedom Act in the United States House of Representatives.[15] The bill would amend the findings of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 by including prohibitions against homeschooling, religious methods of meat production, circumcision, and wearing religious garb, among the various violations of the right to religious freedom.[15][16]

On December 16, 2016, Barack Obama signed into law the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which amends the 1998 Act by specifically extending protection to non-theists as well as those who do not claim any particular religion.[17]

See also


  1. ^ "United States Commission on International Religious Freedom". Retrieved August 1, 2006. 
  2. ^ GPO Public Law 105 - 292 - International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 Page accessed June 3, 2016
  3. ^ a b c GPO International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 text Page accessed June 3, 2016
  4. ^ "The Root Causes of the Sudan's Civil War". Indiana University Press. 2003. Archived from the original on August 30, 2006. Retrieved April 28, 2006. 
  5. ^ The data for this report could not be retrieved at this time, please try again later "People's Republic of China: Religious repression in China". Amnesty International. 1996. Retrieved April 28, 2006. 
  6. ^ "Russia: New Religion Law Fraught with Potential for Abuses". 1997. Retrieved April 28, 2006. 
  7. ^ a b c Human Rights Brief Volume VI, Issue 2, p. 18
  8. ^ "Office of International Religious Freedom Fact Sheet". Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. U.S. State Department, Bureau of Public Affairs, Washington, DC. August 17, 2011. Retrieved March 15, 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c d "International Religious Freedom". US Department of State. 2005. Retrieved April 27, 2006. 
  10. ^ "International Religious Freedom Report". US Department of State. 2005. Retrieved April 27, 2006. 
  11. ^ "United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: Washington, DC". USCIRF. 2006. Retrieved April 27, 2006. 
  12. ^ a b "H.R. 4028 - Summary". United States Congress. Retrieved 28 May 2014. 
  13. ^ Marcos, Cristina (23 May 2014). "Next week: Appropriations, VA reform, intelligence authorization". The Hill. Retrieved 29 May 2014. 
  14. ^ "House Passes Meng Legislation to Make Desecration of Cemeteries a Violation of Religious Freedom". Jewish Political News and Updates. 29 May 2014. Archived from the original on 29 May 2014. Retrieved 29 May 2014. 
  15. ^ a b "H.R. 4650 - Summary". United States Congress. Retrieved August 4, 2014. 
  16. ^ Leshin, Zachary (August 4, 2014). "European Union's assault on religious freedom must end". The Hill. Retrieved August 4, 2014. 
  17. ^ Winston, Kimberly. "New International Religious Freedom Act a first for atheists". Religion News Service. Retrieved 2 January 2017. 
  18. ^ Mann, James (2 May 2014). "Why Narendra Modi Was Banned From the U.S." Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 8 March 2018. 

External links

  • United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
  • Text of International Religious Freedom Act of 1998
  • Office of International Religious Freedom official website
  • International Religious Freedom Report United States Department of State
  • Examining the Government's Record on Implementing the International Religious Freedom Act: Hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, House of Representatives, One Hundred Thirteenth Congress, First Session, June 13, 2013
  • International Religious Freedom Act: State Department and Commission are Implementing Responsibilities but Need to Improve Interaction: Report to Congressional Committees Government Accountability Office
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