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U.S. religious freedom watchdog’s new appointments include two Catholics

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CNA Staff, May 20, 2024 / 15:14 pm (CNA).

The United States Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) named five new commissioners on Friday, including two Catholics active in a variety of advocacy groups, according to a May 17 press release.

Maureen Ferguson and Stephen Schneck, both Catholics, were appointed to the USCIRF, a government organization that reviews violations of religious freedom around the world and makes policy recommendations to the executive branch and Congress.

Government restrictions on the practice of religion reached a new peak globally in 2021 while 55 countries (28% of the 198 countries reviewed) had “high” or “very high” levels of government restriction, according to a PEW 2024 report. In 2021, religious groups faced harassment by governments in 183 countries, the largest number since the study began. 

USCIRF recently called on the Biden administration to address the growing religious persecution worldwide after releasing its 2024 annual report, which recommended naming 17 countries to the U.S. State Department’s list of “countries of particular concern” including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam. 

Appointed by the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, Ferguson is a senior fellow with The Catholic Association, an organization that advocates for the free practice of religion in the U.S. and applies Catholic teaching to contemporary issues. She also serves on the advisory board of Belmont House, an initiative of Belmont Abbey College that works to “defend the practice of religion in the public square.” 

Ferguson serves on the advisory committee for the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, a University of Notre Dame initiative that “is committed to sharing the richness of the Catholic moral and intellectual tradition through teaching, research, and public engagement at the highest level and across a range of disciplines,” according to its website

She is also a member of the board of directors of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, which organizes an annual nonpartisan prayer group that brings more than 1,500 people together in Washington, D.C., to pray for the nation.

Ferguson has written commentary on pro-life and family issues for the National Catholic Register and co-hosts the nationally syndicated radio show “Conversations with Consequences” on EWTN. 

Schneck, who was reappointed to the commission by President Joe Biden, is a retired political philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America, where he founded and directed the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. 

Schneck serves on the governing board of Catholic Climate Covenant, a U.S. organization that advocates for care for creation and climate action. He also is on the board of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, an organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice.

Schneck previously directed the Franciscan Action Network, which advocates for economic, racial, and social justice, and he served under the Obama administration on the White House Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

In addition to Ferguson, Vicky Hartzler and Asif Mahmood were newly appointed to the commission. Schneck was reappointed along with Eric Ueland, who was reappointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Commissioner Susie Gelman’s term continues through May 2025. Gelman served as board chair of the Israel Policy Forum from 2016–2023.

Former commissioners whose terms ended this May include Abraham Cooper, David Curry, Frederick Davie, Mohamed Magid, Nury Turkel, and Frank Wolf.


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