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Seiple: USCIRF irrelevant; panel chair rejects charges

WASHINGTON (BP)–A congressionally established commission on religious liberty overseas should be disbanded unless it changes its approach quickly, said the former U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

Robert Seiple, who resigned as ambassador at large two years ago, charged the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom with “cursing the darkness” rather than promoting religious liberty, becoming irrelevant in the process.

USCIRF chairwoman Felice Gaer rejected the charges, saying Seiple “badly misrepresents the facts” about the commission’s work.

In a column posted on Christianity Today’s Internet site Oct. 16, Seiple said the establishment of the commission by Congress in 1998 was misguided. The authors of the International Religious Freedom Act designed the panel to offset a State Department they believed would not effectively implement the law, he wrote.

From the commission’s beginning, confusion existed because a “$3 million-a-year watchdog known as USCIRF” focused on punishing religious persecutors while the State Department concentrated on promoting religious freedom, Seiple said. Early on, the panel chose as its approach to “curse the darkness” rather than “light a candle,” he said.

Seiple said he has never been comfortable with the “punishing” approach. “While it may appeal to our public machismo at home, it rarely moves the ball forward abroad. Only a perverse mind would delight in adding to a list of countries designated as ‘countries of particular concern.’

“[T]hat which was conceived in error and delivered in chaos has now been consigned to irrelevancy,” he wrote. “Unless the commission finds some candles soon, Congress ought to turn out the lights.”

The USCIRF’s Gaer said of Seiple’s critique, “The Shakespearean response would be, ‘The lady doth protest too much.’ It appears that he is trying to justify a previous position. … I find that very sad.”

A “cursory look” at the commission’s reports since 1999 demonstrates it does not make solely negative recommendations, said Gaer, who is in her second year as a commissioner, her first as chairwoman. “We have recommended positive measures innumerable times. We act very much in the spirit of the act.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a commission member. President Bush appointed him to the nine-member panel in September 2001.

While ambassador at large, Seiple also served as an ex-officio member of the USCIRF. President Clinton named Seiple in May 1999 as the first person to hold the ambassador’s position, which was established by the 1998 law. He resigned as ambassador at large in September 2000 to start the Institute for Global Engagement, a think tank designed to foster religious liberty globally.

The USCIRF’s Sept. 30 recommendation of Laos as a serious violator of religious freedom appeared to prompt Seiple’s sharply critical remarks. It was the third consecutive year the panel had urged the State Department to designate Laos as one of the “countries of particular concern.” Both previous recommendations on the Southeast Asian country were rejected by the State Department, which has yet to act on the USCIRF’s latest advice.

Seiple criticized the commission for again urging CPC designation for Laos, even though it had released 34 Christian prisoners during the summer. They accounted for more than 90 percent of those imprisoned in Laos on religious grounds, he said.

The USCIRF also “could not find time to meet” with a delegation of Laotian officials who visited the United States this summer, Seiple said. Instead, the best the commission could do was to provide staff members to meet with the delegation, he said.

“While the State Department responded positively to [Laos’ release of Christian prisoners], the commission’s perspective seemed to be already locked in cement,” Seiple said. The USCIRF “found it appropriate to hurl hand grenades from afar,” dispelling “facts and one of the great success stories to emerge out of the 1998 legislation,” he said.

“This is unconscionable,” Seiple said. “At $3 million a year, this ought to inspire a taxpayer’s revolt.”

Seiple again badly misrepresented what happened, the USCIRF’s Gaer said.

“We are unquestionably heartened by the release of those prisoners,” but Christians, Baha’is and Buddhists remain in prison because of their religious beliefs, she said. “[P]rison releases are only one part of the picture.

“We have studied the facts” and held a rather “thorough-going discussion” about Laos, she said. “If the overall situation doesn’t change … if government interference continues … you have to ask yourself if the situation fundamentally has changed. We haven’t seen it yet.”

Seiple “conspicuously omits” that the commission sent a team consisting of commissioner Firuz Kazemzadeh and some staff members to Laos in March, Gaer said.

In recommending Laos as a CPC, the USCIRF’s report on the country said its team “noted a number of new developments. Specifically, the Lao government has begun to take steps that, if continued, could lead to improved protection of religious freedom, including a new decree that would establish a legal basis for religious activities and the equality of all religions. However, an initial examination of the religion law indicates that the law may in fact place new restrictions on religious freedom. It remains to be seen, therefore, if the implementation of the new decree, promulgated in July 2002, will significantly reduce severe religious freedom violations. If that becomes the case, the commission might revisit its recommendation on CPC designation.”

To the charge commissioners failed to find time to meet with the Laos delegation, Gaer said, “It is at best knowingly misguided.”

The Institute for Global Engagement, which is based in suburban Philadelphia, sponsored the delegation on its U.S. trip, Gaer said. The commission was asked to meet with the group, and it was indicated commissioners could meet on several proposed dates, she said. Seiple insisted on bringing the delegation to Washington when he knew the commissioners were unavailable, she charged.

“He had a deliberate purpose, and he was trying to build a case,” Gaer said.

A majority of the commissioners do not live in the Washington area.

John Hanford, who was appointed by Bush last year, was sworn in as the new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in May.

During its short existence, the USCIRF has expressed differences with the State Department’s handling of religious liberty issues and its response to the IRFA. Among the commission’s recommendations in its 2002 annual report issued in May were:

— The State Department should take more action against countries it has already designated as CPCs, especially China and Sudan.

— Secretary of State Colin Powell should add the regimes the USCIRF has recommended as CPCs.

— The department should increase staff in embassies and bureaus where necessary in order to promote religious freedom adequately.

In its Sept. 30 letter, the USCIRF urged Powell not only to add Laos but India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Vietnam to the CPC list for their participation in or toleration of particularly severe abuses of religious liberty. The panel also encouraged Powell to maintain CPC designations for Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Sudan.