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Rabbi Saperstein Elected Chair as U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Holds Inaugural Meeting

Time-Urgent Calls Issued on Egypt, Iran

Contact: Mark J. Pelavin, (202) 387-2800 or
Steve Rabinowitz, (202) 547-3577

WASHINGTON, June 22, 1999-The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a 10-member body charged with advising the President on strengthening religious freedom and combating religious persecution worldwide, convened its inaugural meeting on June 21, 1999 in Washington, D.C.

The bipartisan members of the Commission unanimously elected Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as the Chair of the Commission. Michael K. Young, Dean of the George Washington University Law Center, was elected Vice-Chair.

Saperstein, a lawyer and rabbi who recently celebrated his twenty-fifth year at the Religious Action Center, commented: "This Commission has the potential to raise the visibility of religious freedom in U.S. policy making, and to draw our nation's attention to the most egregious manifestations of religious persecution. It should be a great source of pride to the Jewish community that the Soviet Jewry campaign is often cited by Senators and Representatives as an inspiration for the legislation that established the Commission."

Reacting to the election of Saperstein and Young, President Clinton issued the following statement: "I was very pleased to learn of the selection of Rabbi David Saperstein and Dean Michael Young as Chair and Vice-Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Both individuals are highly respected advocates for religious freedom abroad and I know that they will bring a bipartisan and inter-religious spirit to their leadership of the Commission. The promotion of religious freedom has been a major priority of my Presidency and is an important part of our foreign policy. I very much look forward to the work of the Commission and congratulate all of the commissioners as they begin this important undertaking."

The other Jewish member of the Commission is Elliott Abrams, author of Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America and President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an organization dedicated to clarifying the connections between the Judeo-Christian tradition and American public policy. Abrams earlier served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. Commenting on the Commission, Abrams said, "Religious freedom is a critical matter for Jews around the world. I look forward to working with David and the other members of the Commission in this important initiative."

The Commission, established by the Congress through a unanimous vote in passing the International Religious Freedom Act, launched its work by setting its first year's priorities and scope. It will focus on reviewing the facts related to, and U.S. policy regarding, countries evidencing urgent problems of religious persecution, including China and Sudan; and reviewing the facts related to, and U.S. policy regarding, countries which evidence downward trends in protections of religious freedom including Russia, India, and Pakistan.

The Commission also voted to issue appeals to President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright on two time-urgent matters. On the occasion of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's visit this week to the U.S., it urged President Clinton to raise reports of infringements on religious freedom for some Moslems, Christians and others, with a particular focus on the widely reported 1998 arrests and torture of many hundreds of Coptic Christians in the village of Al-Kosheh and failure of the Egyptian government to adequately investigate these reports. The second communication calls on the administration to continue to work at the highest levels to protect the rights of the 13 Iranian Jews recently arrested on charges of spying for the U.S. and Israel.

Members of the Commission:
Chair: Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Vice-Chair: Michael K. Young, Dean, George Washington University Law Center; Elliott Abrams, President, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Laila Al-Marayati, M.D., Past-President, Muslim Women's League; John R. Bolton, Senior Vice President, American Enterprise Institute; Dr. Firuz Kazemzadeh, Secretary of External Affairs, National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States; Most Reverend Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Newark; Nina Shea, Director, Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House; Justice Charles Z. Smith, Justice, Washington State Supreme Court; Ex-Officio: Dr. Robert A. Seiple, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Biographical material on the members of the Commission can be faxed or e-mailed on request.

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