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Bush names ERLC president to religious liberty panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush has named Southern Baptist agency head Richard Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The appointment of Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and two others by Bush was announced Sept. 17.

The commission was established by legislation in 1998. The panel researches religious liberty issues in foreign countries and makes recommendations to the White House and Congress.

Land said he was “humbled and honored” to receive the presidential appointment to the commission. “It will be a privilege to labor alongside the other eight members of the USCIRF to spotlight and monitor repressive regimes and nations that are denying basic human rights to those within their boundaries,” he said.

Land and the ERLC have been part of efforts to address the global persecution of religious adherents, especially Christians, since a pivotal meeting in early 1996 in Washington. That summit galvanized opposition to religious persecution and provided the foundation for a campaign that led to establishment of the religious freedom commission.

Land testified at congressional hearings in support of anti-persecution legislation. In June 1998, he endorsed the International Religious Freedom Act in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The bill, which created the commission, was adopted in October of the same year.

In testimony before House and Senate committees in support of the government’s greater role in the issue, Land made clear the United States should not seek require any other nation to follow its lead in providing for religious liberty and the separation of church and state, as much as he said he believes all nations would benefit from doing so.

“If a Muslim country like Egypt wants to give government preference to the Islamic faith, they have a right to do so in their society,” Land explained, saying that while they are free to have such a policy, he believes it “will ultimately harm the vitality of that faith.”

“We do have the right to insist that they grant freedom from persecution from those who differ from the preferred faith,” he continued. “Virtually every nation in the world has signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which they promise to respect their citizens’ freedom of conscience.”

Land added that his interest in the religious persecution was not new, noting that for nearly two decades he has been seeking “to give voice to those who suffer in silence for their faith.”

The ERLC sponsored a summit on religious persecution in early 1998 in Washington. At the meeting, an expanded coalition of religious and public policy leaders renewed their commitment to persecuted believers in other countries and voiced strong support for a legislative remedy.

Land was elected president of the ERLC, then the Christian Life Commission, in 1988. He has been an advocate for religious freedom throughout his ERLC tenure. He directed the CLC as it joined three other Southern Baptist entities in sponsoring the first religious liberty conference in Romania in 1994. He traveled to the Republic of Georgia in 1991 to speak out on behalf of religious minorities, including Baptists, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Land said it is “lamentable” that people of faith are still subject to “intimidation, imprisonment, enslavement and, in some cases, death in many nations around the globe.”

He noted the recent terrorist attacks launched against the United States were a vivid reminder of the importance of his assignment.

“The kind of terrorism that was launched against America on Sept. 11, 2001, can only flourish in closed, dictatorial societies in which differing points of view are stifled at the point of a bayonet or the barrel of a gun,” Land said. “The best long-term defense against such terrorism is freedom of conscience.”

In its most recent review of “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom abroad,” the USCIRF reported to Secretary of State Colin Powell, in August 2001, that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan should again be re-designated as “a particularly severe violator of religious freedom.” Nine countries were named “countries of particular concern” for their “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

Before his election to head the ERLC, Land served as vice president for academic affairs at Criswell College in Dallas for eight years. He also taught theology and church history at the school for 13 years. From January 1987 to May 1988, he was administrative assistant to Texas Gov. William Clements, advising the governor on church-state and family issues, as well as abortion, drugs and pornography.

Land earned a D.Phil. from Oxford University in England and a master of theology from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He earned a bachelor of arts from Princeton University.

The appointment is a perfect complement to his work as president of the ERLC, Land said. “It will only enhance the platform and the opportunities that I will have to bring the world’s attention to the persecution of people for their religious faith,” he said, noting it was one of the assignments already handled by the ERLC on behalf of Southern Baptists. The position is non-salaried; the federal government covers all the commission-related expenses of the commission’s members.

Also tapped by the president for appointment to the USCIRF were the William Francis Murphy, bishop of the Archdiocese of Rockville Centre, New York, and Shirin Raziuddin Tahir-Kheli, director of the South Asia program at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The commission has nine members. Three commissioners are selected by the president, four by the congressional leaders of the party not in the White House, and two by the leaders of the president’s party in Congress.

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  • Tom Strode & Dwayne Hastings