Bishops bat for protection of international religious freedom, seek passage of US bill

ReutersPope Francis addresses guests at St. Patrick's Church in Washington on Sept. 24, 2015.

Catholic bishops are calling on the US Congress to swiftly pass a bill that reauthorises the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), whose mandate is to protect those persecuted for their faith, the Catholic News Agency (CNA) said.

"In the wake of Pope Francis' historic visit, I ask you to call for the protection of international religious freedom by passing S. 2078 to reauthorise USCIRF," said Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, chairman of the US bishops' international justice and peace commission, in a letter sent to the US Congress.

"At a time when international religious freedom is increasingly imperilled, it is vital that USCIRF be reauthorised so that it can continue to highlight the need to protect those who are discriminated against, harassed and even killed for their faith," he added.

Last December, Bishop Cantu said Congress passed a nine-month extension reauthorising the commission, which then expired last Sept. 30, according to CNA.

"Now, the body is asking for a four-year extension through the Commission on International Religious Freedom Reauthorization Act of 2015, Bill S.2078, which was passed unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday,'' said Cantu.

In the same letter, Cantú lauded the bipartisan collaboration of Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on bill S. 2078, calling their reauthorisation of the commission "a welcome sign" in the midst of "partisan division," said CNA.

Cantu further cited the Pope's message about "protecting religious freedom as critical to the health of societies,'' stressing that over the years, the US bishops have been strong advocates for the protection of religious freedom worldwide.

During his six-day visit to the United States last week, Pope Francis called religious freedom "one of America's most precious possessions.''

"In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others," he said.

CNA said the bill now goes to a vote in the House of Representatives, and if passed, it will go to President Obama's desk for signature before it takes effect.

CIRF was started in 1998 to monitor the state of religious liberty and freedom of thought, conscience, or belief as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements, said CNA.

The commission reportedly "makes independent policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress."