NEW YORK – Early in his career, Stephen Schneck was introduced to the plight of religious minorities on trips alongside fellow Catholic scholars to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. He remembers in particular a meeting in 2000 with members of the Baha’i sect in Iran, who expressed their concerns and crystallized for him the precarious situation throughout central Asia.

From those early days on the ground, Schneck said religious freedom became central to his work. Now two decades later, the topic is the focus of his work as he joins the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom at the appointment of President Joe Biden.

Schneck said it might be the most important role of his career.

“The freedom to be able to decide what we believe in regard to faith is so critical for all social justice issues in my estimation, so in many ways this is the pinnacle of my work,” he said.

Schneck, a Catholic, has a two-decades-plus long career in social justice advocacy.

He currently serves on the governing board of the Catholic Climate Covenant, which advocates for environmental justice, and Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works to end the death penalty. He previously served as executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, which promotes environmental, economic, racial, and social justice. He was also the founder of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America and served as its longtime director before his retirement in 2018.

Speaking with Crux about his new appointment, Schneck said his career in social advocacy gives him a unique footing and perspective that translates well to religious freedom advocacy.

“My work as an activist on behalf of social justice has given me a kind of empathy for those who are on the margins, for those who are oppressed, for those who are repressed, for those who are discriminated against, for those who are persecuted,” Schneck said. “It’s really given me a heart for the kind of work that the commission is doing.”

Biden announced Schneck’s appointment to the eight-person commission on June 15.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal commission that monitors and reports on religious freedom to the U.S. government and Congress. It is separate from the State Department. Based on its findings, each year it issues a report on the state of religious freedom worldwide.

Schneck noted that something he admires about the commission is that everyone comes from a different faith background, yet no one on the commission is there to represent their own denomination; all work on behalf of all those experiencing religious discrimination.

For Schneck that means he won’t be acting as a Catholic, but he also acknowledged that his sensitivities will be informed by his faith.

“I think the church’s teachings on solidarity, on the common good, on religious liberty itself, I think very much inform my sensitivities to the challenges that religious communities around the globe are facing,” he said. “It’s a part of who I am and of course it shapes the way I look at the world and I think that will add a dimension to my work on the commission.”

As for the situation Schneck is stepping into, religious freedom conditions continue to deteriorate in many places around the globe. He identified the Uighurs in China, Rohingya in Myanmar, Evangelicals in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, Christians in Nigeria, and “the rising tide of antisemitism in a number of countries around the world.”

“It’s a long list,” Schneck said. “Religious liberty is under challenge in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places, and so the work of the commission is critical … I feel a real sense of responsibility for doing it right, for putting in the effort that I can to try to address the situation.” He added that his reaction to the appointment “was a mixture of being tremendously excited, honored, and humbled, but also feeling daunted by the task ahead.”

One key aspect of the job will be travel. The USCIRF commissioners typically travel often to gauge situations on the ground, though trips have largely been on hold for the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Things now seem trending back towards normal – Schneck said he’s already been told to expect a lot of travel in the next couple of years.

“Travel is absolutely critical. It’s necessary,” Schneck said. “To be able to meet with representatives from persecuted minority religions around the world is just so important.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburgUS