WASHINGTON  -- The chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on Congress and the White House to boost defense of religious rights worldwide by stepping up actions designated under federal law.

Robert P. George told a congressional hearing that provisions of the International Religious Freedom Act, including diplomacy, presidential actions and the negotiation of binding agreements, could be better used to protect religious rights.

A bioethicist and Princeton University professor, George told the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations May 22 that the U.S. could raise the profile of religious persecution through its actions against some of the world's strictest regimes.

"USCIRF recommends that current and future administrations and Congress recommit themselves to the full and robust applications of IRFA's mechanisms. Interest has faded over the past decade and a half, allowing these structures to atrophy," George said.

He also called upon President Barack Obama to fill the position of  ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and to raise the profile of the position by ensuring the person serving in it has "direct and regular access" to the secretary of state.

The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook held the position from May 2011 until resigning in October. The position remains vacant.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., subcommittee chairman, said he called the hearing to call attention to some of the most serious violations of religious rights around the world. He cited incidents such as the  imprisonment of Merian Yehya Ibrahim, a Christian expectant mother who is imprisoned in Sudan and facing a death sentence for not renouncing her faith, and growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine since the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovich in February.

He said U.S. leadership on religious freedom "could not be more critical," but noted that the tools to do so "are lightly used."

"History shows that when the U.S. makes religious freedom a priority and that priority is conveyed to countries of particular concern, we have seen conditions with minimal harm to security or economic cooperation," he said.

In his remarks, George urged the State Department follow the USCIRF recommendation to expand its list of countries of particular concern from eight to 16 because of rising evidence of crackdowns on religious practice. George pointed to the recommendations in the commission's 2014 annual report that Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam be added to the list.

Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan currently are designated as countries of particular concern by the State Department.

"Because religious freedom is so central to human identity, we would expect that in places where it is unprotected, societal well-being would suffer," George explained.

"Politically, religious freedom abuses are linked with the absence of democracy and the presence of abuses of other human rights, such as freedom of expression, association and assembly. Economically, religious persecution can destabilize communities and marginalize the persecuted, causing their talents and abilities to go unrealized, robbing a nation of added productivity and reducing its ability to fight poverty and make positive economic strides," he said.

"Wherever religious freedom is abused, peace and security may become ever more elusive," George added.

The commission chairman also called on Congress to pass legislation that would keep the commission in business through Sept. 30, 2019.

George was among several people to testify at the hearing.

Kenneth E. Bowers, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, discussed the persecution of people of his faith in Iran. He said that in January, 136 Baha'is were being detained in Iranian prisons.

Los Angeles attorney Amjad Mahmood Khan, a Muslim, told the hearing about persecution of members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan. Ahmadiyya Muslims adhere to the motto of "Love for all, hatred for none" and reject terrorism in all forms, he said.

Under Pakistani law, members of the community are denied the right to self-identify as Muslims, Khan said.

As a result, he explained, Ahmadi Muslim professionals have been  targeted by extremist groups, police have failed to provide adequate protection to members of the community and "frivolous" blasphemy cases continue to be filed against members "as a means to settle personal scores and business rivalries."

Bob Fu, president of U.S.-based China Aid, testified that since January the Chinese government has intensified its suppression of house churches in China. In particular, Fu pointed to actions in Zhejiang province where authorities demolished what it called "illegally constructed church buildings" and the crosses on the roof of numerous churches.

He said the actions have spread to other provinces as worshippers have been held in administrative detention, fined, had property confiscated and faced criminal trial.

"The protection of religious freedom and other God-endowed human rights is the foundation of our nation and once was a sacred principle adhered by the U.S. government in diplomacy. Today, however, the U.S. government has given up the principle and its adherence to the sacred belief," Fu told the hearing.

He urged the U.S. to "take actions right away and send a clear, strong message to the Chinese government."