GAO: Mixed signals by US on religion creating tensions

Both the State Department and the commission vowed to work more closely together. But the commission said its very role would inevitably create tensions sometimes.

“USCIRF's mandate is neither to conduct diplomacy nor balance religious freedom against other U.S. national interests,” panel chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett told GAO. “At times, our findings draw the ire of offending governments that would prefer their shortcomings remain hidden and may result in bilateral friction.”

The report found that in at least three specific instances, the commission took a harder stance than the State Department and its ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, creating tensions that had to be smoothed over. 

The commission last year recommended that Turkey be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern,” a position at odds with the State Department's own annual report on religious report, which is also mandated by the religious freedom law. Commissioners also reportedly “offended” their Vietnamese hosts in 2006 shortly after Vietnam was removed from the same list.

“State officials told us that this was damaging to some of the progress made with Vietnamese officials and necessitated efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with Vietnam,” according to the report.

The commission also recommended that Laos be added to the list shortly after the communist country freed 34 people imprisoned for their religious beliefs. Former President George W. Bush's first ambassador, Robert Seiple, told GAO that “USCIRF's recommendation almost ruined State's diplomatic efforts to address religious freedom in Laos.”

The position is currently held by Suzan Johnson Cook, who was confirmed in April 2011 after being held up by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for 10 months. Eight countries are currently designated as Countries of Particular Concern: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The GAO interviewed the three ambassadors who have held the position, pored over 178 diplomatic cables and visited five countries — Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Vietnam — to prepare the 66-page report.