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Clinton support for religious liberty panel questioned

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Commission on International Religious Freedom awaits three presidential appointments for completion of its membership amid questions about President Clinton’s commitment to the panel’s purpose.
While supporters of the commission are pleased with the six members named by congressional leaders, some have criticized Clinton’s failure to fund the panel in his new budget and his tardiness in making his selections.
The commission was established as a result of the adoption of the International Religious Freedom Act in October. Enactment of the legislation was the result of a long and often contentious struggle to adopt a measure intended to alleviate the persecution of religious adherents in foreign countries.
The nine-member commission established by the law is to report annually on countries guilty of committing or permitting violations of religious liberty. The president is required to respond to the report, but he has options ranging from diplomatic protest to economic sanction as measures to use in dealing with offending governments.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., and House of Representatives Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D.-Mo., made the most recent selections to the commission by the late February deadline established by the law. Daschle named Theodore McCarrick, Roman Catholic archbishop of Newark, N.J. Gephardt selected David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The first four panel members were named in December. Outgoing Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga., named Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom, and Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R.-Miss., nominated Bill Armstrong, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, and John Bolton, a former assistant secretary of state.
The president is “considering candidates” and will announce his choices soon, a State Department spokesperson said March 11. The White House met with Daschle and Gephardt and chose to allow them to make their nominations first, she said.
In January, Clinton announced his selection of Robert Seiple as ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He will serve as an ex-officio member of the commission. Seiple, former head of the Christian relief organization World Vision, was named last year as special representative for international religious freedom in the State Department.
The president’s failure to include the commission in the new budget brought questions from Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., on the floor of the House. Wolf, a veteran fighter against violations of religious liberty and human rights overseas, told his colleagues in mid-February he is “concerned that the administration may be all talk and no action when it comes to promoting international religious freedom.”
“President Clinton talks as if he supports the bill, but when the rubber meets the road, there is no financial support,” Wolf said.
The legislation forming the panel authorized $3 million for each of the next two years. Since the commission is not in the White House’s new budget, Wolf is pushing Congress to appropriate funds for it.
“But we wonder,” Wolf said, “if we give them the money, will they even put their efforts behind it and support it?”
The passage of the bill establishing the commission came after the White House, major American businesses and some religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches, opposed previous versions.
Adoption of the legislation came after a more stringent anti-persecution measure sponsored by Wolf and Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., passed the House easily but failed to gain support in the Senate. Sen. Don Nickles, R.-Okla., introduced the alternative eventually adopted without dissent by Congress. Nickles made a series of changes in the bill in order to gain bipartisan support and to prevent a Clinton veto.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was among a broad array of organizations that worked for passage of the bill. Other organizations supporting the Nickles legislation included the Christian Coalition, Anti-Defamation League, National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Catholic Conference, Episcopal Church, Christian Legal Society and American Jewish Committee.
It is estimated more followers of Christ have died for their faith in the 20th century than in all the 19 previous centuries combined. Those cited most frequently as countries where religious persecution persists include the Sudan, China, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Burma.