The first Uyghur American appointed to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has been elected the group’s chairman. Nury Turkel was elected unanimously to the post by his fellow commissioners.
Also, Abraham Cooper, a recognized authority on antisemitism, was elected vice chairman. He is a Jewish rabbi and academic. He succeeds Turkel, who previously was vice chairman.
Both assume new leadership roles on the commission, where nine members serve four-year terms and leaders serve one-year terms that may be renewed for a second year. The nine commissioners are appointed by either the president or congressional leaders of each political party and are supported by a non-partisan professional staff.
Turkel succeeds Nadine Maenza as chair. She is a religious conservative who was appointed to the commission by former President Donald Trump. Turkel is a human rights advocate who was appointed to the commission by House Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
Cooper, the vice chairman, recently was appointed to the commission by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan government agency that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes recommendations to the White House, State Department and Congress. It has been criticized in the past by those who believe the commissioners favor religious freedom for evangelical Christians, but commissioners have steadfastly said they work for equal protection for all.
This summer, the commission has experienced significant turnover due to the structure of the appointment cycle.
In addition to Cooper being appointed by McConnell, Frank Wolf, a former Congressman from Virginia, and David Curry, president of Open Doors USA, were appointed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also a Republican. McConnell also appointed Eric Ueland, a former Trump White House legal adviser, for a first term. And President Joe Biden appointed Catholic theologian Stephen Schneck.
There is one remaining vacancy on the commission to be filled by President Joe Biden.
Chairman Turkel is a lawyer, foreign policy expert and human rights advocate. He is chairman of the board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
He was born in a re-education camp at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution and spent the first several months of his life in detention with his mother. He came to the United States in 1995 as a student and later was granted asylum by the U.S. government.
Vice Chairman Cooper is associate dean and director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which he co-founded. He also is a founder of the Global Forum on Anti-Semitism. As an acknowledged expert on online hate and terrorism, he is known for defending the rights of the Jewish people, combating terrorism, and promoting multi-faith relations worldwide. He was listed by Newsweek among the 50 most influential rabbis in America, alongside fellow USCIRF Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum.