(CNSNews.com) – An independent statutory body advising the U.S. government on international religious freedom issues is undergoing a process of change across the board, with the bulk of its commissioners – including some who have served for a decade – being replaced.
The first two newcomers on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) appointed by Republican congressional leaders and named Monday, are Princeton University professor Robert P. George, a conservative Roman Catholic thinker; and M. Zuhdi Jasser, an observant Muslim and “anti-Islamist” activist.
Six of the USCIRF’s nine unpaid commissioners are due to depart by May, as a result of a requirement inserted into reauthorization legislation in December, limiting commissioners to two, two-year terms.
The struggle for reauthorization went right down to the wire, being finalized just three days before the commission would have had to close. Commission chairman Leonard Leo had appealed to lawmakers not to shut down the body, warning that doing so “would signal to the world that the United States is retreating from the cause of religious freedom.”
Among commissioners already gone as a result of the congressional requirement are the two Republican appointees being replaced by George and Jasser – Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; and Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Religious Freedom.
Land served on the commission since 2001, with a one-year absence; Shea has been a commissioner since the body was established in 1999 under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
Three Democratic appointees have also left in recent days – Elizabeth Prodromou, international relations professor at Boston University; Don Argue, chancellor of Northwest University; and Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s human rights institute. Prodromou has served on the USCIRF since 2005, Argue since 2007 and Gaer since 2001. Their replacements have yet to be named.
Finally Leo, the current chairman, is due to leave on May 14, when his second full-term ends, a commission spokesperson confirmed Monday. Leo, executive vice-president of the Federalist Society, has been on the USCIRF since 2007.
The enforced departure of the six leaves just three commissioners with experience on the watchdog. They are Democratic appointees Azizah al Hibri, a Muslim law professor, and William Shaw, a Baptist pastor and former National Baptist Convention president; and Republican appointee Ted van der Meid, former counsel to GOP congressional leaders.
New commissioner George is professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton. He has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
In 2009, George co-authored the Manhattan Declaration, a document initially signed by more than 150 Christian leaders – and many more since – who said that civil disobedience may be needed to defend life, marriage and religious freedom in the United States.
George, who was appointed to the USCIRF by House Speaker John Boehner, told CNSNews.com Monday he was grateful for the opportunity to serve on the commission “at a time when religious liberty and the rights of conscience are under assault both at home and abroad.”
“The commission has done valuable work in the past to defend religious liberty, and its legacy is something to maintain and building upon,” he said. “One area I wish to prioritize is promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation as a way of both protecting religious freedom and reducing suspicion and animosity among people of different religious traditions.”
The second new commissioner, Jasser, is president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, an “anti-Islamist” non-profit group that describes its mission as advocating “for the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom, through the separation of mosque and state.
The U.S.-born son of Syrian immigrants and a physician practicing in Phoenix, Ariz., Jasser was appointed to the USCIRF by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I am looking forward to serving and providing my perspective on the issues that come before the commission in order to protect and bring awareness to the abuse of religious freedom,” he told CNSNews.com.
“I believe USCIRF’s mission is vital to bringing true national security to the United States and freedom to people all around the world. I am looking forward to working with my fellow commissioners to develop an agenda that brings open and transparent discourse on religious issues.”
A key function of the USCIRF is to make recommendations to the government about designating “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious violations of religious freedom. Under the IRFA, such countries may face sanctions or other measures designed to prod governments to making improvements.
The commission’s CPC recommendations have not always gone smoothly. The State Department can – and frequently does – ignore the advice. For example:
--After overruling the recommendation for three consecutive years, the Bush State Department in 2004 designated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, but both it and its successor waived sanctions, despite the urging of the USCIRF.
--Vietnam’s CPC designation was lifted in 2006 – prematurely, in the view of the commission, which amid continuing abuses continues to call for it to be restored.
--Of 16 countries which the USCIRF in its 2012 report says deserve CPC status, only eight are designated as such by the State Department. They are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. The eight that are not are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
In recent days, a USCIRF recommendation that Turkey be named a CPC for the first time caused deep divisions in the bipartisan commission.
Typically all nine commissioners agree on a recommendation, or one or two may dissent. In the case of Turkey, however, four of the nine opposed the recommendation. A fifth tried at the last minute to change his position from support to dissent – following intervention by the State Department – but his request was ruled as being too late.
Turkey’s foreign ministry slammed the recommendation, saying it showed the commission “lags behind comprehending the steps taken in Turkey recently in the field of protecting religious freedom and the rights of non-Muslim minorities.”
The Turkey recommendation currently stands, but – coincidentally – the three surviving commissioners, al Hibri, Shaw and van der Meid, were all in the dissenting group.