One of the most significant U.S. milestones in 1998
WASHINGTON — 1998 was a momentous year. Osama bin Laden published fatwas declaring jihad against all Jews and crusaders, and Europeans agreed on a single currency. Also during that year, Google was founded; Apple Computer unveiled the iMac; Exxon and Mobil merged to create the world’s largest petroleum company; and the International Religious Freedom Act was enacted. This transformative piece of legislation was written, debated, re-written and nearly left for dead before Congress voted unanimously for its passage in the fall of 1998. This week the human rights organization 21Wilberforce released The 20th Anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act: A Retrospective. This publication, which was made possible by support from the Religion News Foundation, captures the historical context and the collaborative efforts needed to pass the law that has driven considerable human rights initiatives over the past 20 years.
Signed into law on October 27, 1998, by then-President Bill Clinton, the IRF Act established the framework to elevate religious freedom as a priority within U.S. foreign policy. Among other provisions, the law created the Office of International Religious Freedom within the U.S. Department of State, as well as the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. It also established the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and ensured annual reporting of the status of religious freedom worldwide.
“The IRF Act is a story of triumph, both of our legislative process and of the human longing to protect and defend the most fundamental human right — religious freedom,” said Randel Everett, President of 21Wilberforce. “Our aim in telling this story is to understand where we’ve come from and present a clearer vision for the future among those who seek to foster a full embrace of the respect for human dignity and freedom of conscience.”
The retrospective includes candid conversations and observations culled from more than 55 interviews with prominent international religious freedom stakeholders, from elected officials and foreign policy experts to human rights and grassroots advocates and academics. It features historical photos, an intertwining timeline, and a narrative that explores the effectiveness of the IRF Act — what has worked, what has fallen short, and the mistakes and milestones made along the way. A digital PDF version of the publication includes hyperlinks to dozens of original source documents, including legislation, policy and committee reports, congressional hearings, and news analysis.
The publication, which was unveiled at an event hosted by Nina Shea and the Hudson Institute’s Working Group on Christians and Religious Pluralism in the Middle East, featured remarks by Rep. Frank Wolf (a primary sponsor of the IRF Act and former Distinguished Senior Fellow of 21Wilberforce), Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and Kristina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. The PDF version of The 20th Anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act: A Retrospective can be accessed at 21Wilberforce.org/reports-data
21Wilberforce is a human rights organization dedicated to defending people of faith internationally. Its vision is to empower people of faith to collaboratively support persecuted communities, challenge religious repression, and expand religious freedom globally.