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Bush to reappoint Land to U.S. religious liberty panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush has announced he will reappoint Southern Baptist Richard Land to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The president announced Aug. 13 his intention to rename Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, to the panel. Land is the only Bush appointee returned to the commission.

The White House also announced the names of two new Bush appointees to the commission: Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and a leading authority on Islamic law, and Charles Caput, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Denver.

The commission, established by legislation enacted in 1998, researches religious liberty issues in foreign countries and makes recommendations to the White House and Congress. It consists of six appointees by congressional leaders and three by the president.

Land said it was an honor and a privilege to be appointed by Bush in 2001, but his reappointment is “an even greater and more humbling honor.”

“I understand that like all presidential appointees I serve at the president’s pleasure,” he said, “and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to serve the nation and this cause for an additional term.”

Bush named Land to a two-year term on the USCIRF in 2001. Land’s new term is for one year.

“I am delighted that President Bush has appointed three individuals as distinguished and knowledgeable as Archbishop Chaput, Dr. Land and Professor El Fadl,” USCIRF chairman Michael Young said in a written release. “The experience and perspective they bring will greatly enhance the work of our commission, as well as our effectiveness. The selection of these three eminent individuals is also indicative of President Bush’s commitment to the very important issue of international religious freedom.”

Land joins Young and two other commissioners as returnees to the panel. In June, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist reappointed Young; House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert renamed Nina Shea; and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reappointed Felice Gaer.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle named two new commissioners in June: Preeta Bansal, visiting professor of constitutional law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, and Ricardo Ramirez, a Roman Catholic bishop in Las Cruces, N.M.

Pelosi has yet to name the final member of this year’s panel. Until she does, Leila Nadya Sadat will continue to serve as a commissioner. She is a professor at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Mo.

The commission elected Young in July as chairman and selected Shea and Gaer as vice chairs. Young is dean of the George Washington University Law School in Washington. Shea is director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington. Gaer is director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights at the American Jewish Committee.

Congress established the USCIRF on the basis of a growing concern about persecution, especially of Christians, in numerous countries, notably communist and Islamic states. It issues an annual report on religious liberty worldwide and makes recommendations to the State Department on countries it believes qualify as “countries of particular concern.” The State Department compiles a list of regimes it considers severe violators of religious freedom.

The commission has sent delegations to investigate religious liberty conditions in some countries and has held hearings on persecution under various governments. The USCIRF postponed in early August a trip to China when the Beijing government reneged on its commitment to the panel and strongly discouraged its planned visit to Hong Kong.

Land said he has “never been more proud to be an American than during the time that I have served on this commission.”

“I have come to better appreciate the unique role that the United States government plays in promoting religious freedom and religious toleration around the world,” he said. “If the United States government does not insist that religious liberty be part of the agenda, then no one else will. …”

“As a Baptist, I am keenly aware of our heritage in protecting the right of all citizens to exercise freely their faith. Soul freedom is not a privilege to be bestowed or revoked at the whim of the civil magistrate. It is a foundational, God-given right for all people,” said Land, who will mark this fall the completion of 15 years as head of the ERLC. “I owe a great debt of gratitude to Southern Baptists for affording me the opportunity to serve them” at the ERLC.

One of Bush’s new appointees, El Fadl, is a prominent Muslim critic of Saudi Arabia’s extreme form of Islam, which is known as Wahhabism, according to The Los Angeles Times. His term is for two years, while that of Chaput is for one.

Land and the ERLC have been part of efforts to address the global persecution of Christians and other religious adherents 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 1998, he endorsed the International Religious Freedom Act in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The IRFA, which was enacted later that year, brought the commission into existence.

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.