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Panel voices concern about religious liberty in Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist executive Richard Land joined other members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent and bipartisan federal agency, at the White House Oct. 10 to present President George W. Bush with the commission’s 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

USCIRF commissioners also spoke with the president about the state of religious liberty in Saudi Arabia and other countries and commended him for his personal commitment to promoting freedom of thought and conscience around the world. Land, who was appointed by President Bush to the commission in 2001, recently began his second term on the USCIRF.

“If the United States fails to focus on religious liberty issues and ceases to force other countries to address these matters, the sad truth is that very few people in the world will give attention to religious freedom and universal human rights,” said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The USCIRF spearheads the U.S. government’s efforts in this area, he said in remarks following the White House meeting.

“Members of the USCIRF are committed to religious liberty for all people, not just Americans,” Land said, emphasizing that the commission focuses on international religious freedom issues only.

Land said in the White House meeting the commissioners conveyed their concern about Saudi Arabia bankrolling and exporting an extreme and radical interpretation of Islam, often referred to as Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world. The USCIRF report also cited “ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom inside Saudi Arabia.”

In its report, the commission reiterated its recommendation that the State Department add not only Saudi Arabia and Vietnam to its “countries of particular concern,” but also India, Laos, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The State Department’s CPC list, those countries viewed as “egregious religious freedom violators,” consists of Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.

Land said commissioners were grateful to have the opportunity to express the concerns specifically addressed in their annual report directly to the president. The commissioners expressed alarm at the rising tide of anti-Semitism in parts of Europe, Land said, noting the group also had discussed current circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is important that individual human rights of freedom of conscience, not just group rights, be secured in those countries,” Land said.

The group praised the president for his “extraordinary efforts” in working toward a peaceful settlement of the bloody conflict between the Sudanese government and rebels in southern Sudan. The commission has identified Sudan as the “world’s most violent abuser of the right to freedom of religion and belief.”

Land said the commissioners discussed the North Korean situation with the president and expressed concern with horrific human rights violations and the humanitarian catastrophe there. Commissioners expressed appreciation to the president for raising the issue of religious freedom during his visit to China.

In addition to Land, other commissioners attending the meeting were Preeta D. Bansal, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Felice D. Gaer, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, Nina Shea, Michael K. Young and Ambassador John V. Hanford. Former commissioners attending were Firuz Kazemzadeh, Bishop William F. Murphy, Leila Nadya Sadat and Ambassador Charles R. Stith.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was established by passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the conditions of religious freedom around the world and to make independent recommendations to the president, the secretary of state and Congress in matters related to religious freedom in nations other than the United States.
Tom Strode contributed to this article. The USCIRF’s 2003 report, as well as new individual country reports, may be accessed online at www.uscirf.gov.

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  • Dwayne Hastings