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Gingrich, Lott name choices for religious freedom panel

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congressional leaders have appointed four of the nine members of a new panel on religious freedom overseas, including one of the leaders in awakening Americans to the persecution of Christians worldwide.
Outgoing Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, R.-Ga., named Nina Shea, director of the Washington-based Center for Religious Freedom, and Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of State, to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. In the same news release, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R.-Miss., announced his selection of Bill Armstrong, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, and John Bolton, a former assistant secretary of State, for the panel.
The president has three appointments to the commission, while the Senate and House minority leaders have one each. President Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., are expected to name their selections in January, staff members for both said. The office of the House minority leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D.-Mo., was closed for the holidays.
The commission was established as a result of the adoption of the International Religious Freedom Act in October. The 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 six-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.
While the law is intended to provide freedom for adherents of all religions, it was the sudden awareness nearly three years ago of the widespread nature of the persecution of Christians that provided momentum for such legislation. Shea has been among those leading the effort to educate American Christians of the plight of their fellow believers. Her organization has helped reveal incidents of persecution in countries such as China and Egypt. She also has been a member of the 20-person Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad, which is administered by the State Department.
Abrams formerly was assistant secretary of State for Human Rights, as well as for International Organizations. He held both positions during President Reagan’s administration, which was from 1981-89. He now is president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Armstrong is a conservative evangelical Christian who served two terms in the Senate before returning to private life in 1991.
Bolton, who is a senior vice president at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, served in both the Reagan and Bush administrations. He was an assistant attorney general under Reagan and assistant secretary of State for International Organizations in the Bush administration.
“By these appointments, we serve notice upon those rulers who have on their hands the blood of martyrs: The United States of America has heard the cry of the oppressed and will no longer turn away from their suffering,” Gingrich and Lott said in a joint written statement Dec. 22.
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 China, Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Laos and Burma.
When Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act in late October, he said he planned to nominate Robert Seiple to the position of ambassador at large established by the law. He will serve as an ex-officio member of the commission. Seiple, former head of the Christian relief organization World Vision, was named earlier in the year as special representative for international religious freedom in the Department of State.
Adoption of the legislation came after a more stringent anti-persecution measure sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R.-Pa., passed the House easily but failed to gain support in the Senate. It faced the opposition of major American businesses, the White House and some religious organizations, such as the National Council of Churches.
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.