• Nury Turkel SOTU

U.S. Rep. Hill chooses religious freedom leader as guest for State of Union address

by Alex Thomas
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
February 7, 2023

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., has invited the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to be his guest for President Joe Biden's State of the Union address this evening.

Nury Turkel has served on the commission since his appointment by then-House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in May 2020. He has been a vocal advocate for religious groups facing persecution and mistreatment, with an extensive interest in the Uyghur people of China.

Biden's second State of the Union address will be at 8 p.m. Central before members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, administration officials and guests. Congressional members are allowed to invite one guest to the president's annual address to a joint session of Congress.

"I wanted to illustrate one of the top priorities of this Congress for House Republicans, which is countering China's malign influence across the globe," Hill said Monday while sitting with Turkel in his Capitol Hill office. "I can't think of a better person who can represent that concern that we have here in the Congress than to ask my friend to sit in the gallery."

Hill and Turkel share common ground on protecting religious liberties and freedom of expression. Both participated in last week's International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., where Hill was the only active lawmaker to speak during the event's kickoff breakfast at the Capitol. They first met in 2021 at a Ramadan event in Alexandria, Va.

"We have become more strongly acquainted through our joint work on religious liberty," said Hill, who is Catholic.

Turkel was born in China's Xinjiang province, where the United Nations says China has committed serious human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, including imprisonment, torture and forced abandonment of religious practices. He came to the United States in 1995 at the age of 24.

"As I got older and started learning about what the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] government really stands for and how it perceives religion in particular, I realized that there are a lot of things that they do -- domestic and foreign -- that boils down to something that is quite simple that people don't really appreciate around the world, and it's that CCP is inherently anti-religion," Turkel said.

"Religion is perceived as a thought virus for the Communist Party, with or without justifications."

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is a nonpartisan federal agency focused on the ability of people outside the United States to openly express their religious beliefs. Commissioners are allowed to address Congress on related matters, meet with White House officials and make policy recommendations. Turkel took part in discussions on religious freedom last month with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and Vatican leaders.

"In the last 50 years, the international community has seen the worst form of religious persecution that turned into genocide," Turkel said. "Every single time, the victim is a religious community."

The timing of Biden's address comes amid an uneasy period in the U.S.-China relationship. American military forces shot down a possible Chinese spy balloon Saturday after it drifted across parts of the United States and Canada. The balloon resulted in Secretary of State Antony Blinken's canceling a trip to Beijing, and the military's actions triggered condemnation and a threat of "further actions" by Chinese officials.

According to a Pew Research Center report released in September, 82% of Americans have an unfavorable view of China.

In one of its first acts of the new Congress, the House overwhelmingly supported the creation of a new select committee to investigate the relationship between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.

"It's not countering China. We love the Chinese people, and China's been an ally of the United States many, many times over the last 200 years," Hill said.

"This is about the Chinese Communist Party's subjugation not only domestically ... but also how they export that belief system, economic diplomacy and technology abroad, which is how it comes to conflict with the democracies of the world and the existing open trading system that's been in place since World War II."

Turkel said he hopes Biden gives a "very clear" message on China's policies while defending values such as freedom of religious expression.

"The Chinese always use the word 'constant battle,' but in Washington the message is very mixed," he said. "We have to revisit our messaging about what we believe, what we see and how we will deal with this regime."

Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers, has invited George Dunklin, Arkansas' former Game and Fish commissioner, to tonight's address. Rep. Steve Womack, another Republican from Rogers, will bring University of Arkansas Chancellor Charles Robinson.

Hot Springs Republican Bruce Westerman has named Brittany Alkonis as his guest. Alkonis is the wife of Ridge Alkonis, a U.S. naval officer serving a three-year prison sentence in Japan for a May 2021 car crash in which two people died. Alkonis' family said the wreck happened after he became unconscious while driving from Mount Fuji.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will give the Republican response to Biden's address, congressional GOP leaders announced last week. She will deliver the response from Little Rock once the president concludes his address.

Sanders' selection comes less than a month after the former White House press secretary took office and became the first female governor in Arkansas' history. Sanders, 40, is also the nation's youngest governor serving in office.

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