Former Connecticut lawmaker to fight religious oppression

Washington — Sam Gejdenson, who for 20 years represented eastern Connecticut in Congress, is now looking for “bad actors” around the world.

The former Democratic congressman was named by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to be the newest member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent government body that monitors — and tries to end — religious persecution around the globe.

Gejdenson, 64, said he thinks he was picked for the post because he’s “done a lot of work on human rights.”

Since losing his seat in Congress to former Republican Rep. Rob Simmons, Gejdenson has worked as a consultant and as a board member of several nonprofits, including the American Jewish World Service since then. He lives in Bozrah, Conn.

He said he relishes the chance to battle religious persecution, no matter how difficult that may be.

“Just because you can’t fix everything immediately doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try,” he said.

The USCIRF’s 10-member panel is chosen by the leaders of Congress and by the White House.

Pelosi said she chose Gejdenson because of his background. “(He) has decades of experience on international affairs, human rights and has profound personal experience on the issue of religious freedom, which makes him imminently qualified for this position,” she said.


Former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson


Gejdenson, who is Jewish, said he’s not particularly religious.

“I’m certainly not Orthodox,” he said.

But he is familiar with oppression.

Gejdenson was born in 1948 in a U.S. displaced persons camp in Eschwege, Germany. His parents were Holocaust survivors who became Connecticut dairy farmers.

Representing Connecticut’s 2nd District in the House, Gejdenson won a seat on the House International Relations Committee. where he championed legislation to crack down on international human trafficking. He’s also known for surviving several close elections, including one that was won by 21 votes.

USCIRF commissioners determine which countries are “countries of particular concern,” such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and China, and less egregious “watch list” countries, such as Russia and India.

The commission issues an annual report on offenses and presses the State Department and international organizations to put pressure on offenders.

Gejldenson said the commission’s work is vital.

“The world is busy so it’s hard to get people to pay attention to religious repression,” he said.

But the commission on religious freedom has been criticized for paying too much attention to abuses in China and Muslim nations and not enough to violations elsewhere.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the commission is hostage to the commissioners’ biases and pet projects and “has been beset by controversy since its inception.”

In addition, former commissioners have accused the panel of an anti-Muslim bias.

“There were problems in the past, but things like that won’t happen now,” Gejdenson said.

The reason for that, he said, is with turnover, most of the commissioners are new.

But, Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim who has recently been appointed to the commission, has been criticized as a “mere sock puppet for Islam haters” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim groups. They point to Jasser’s opposition to certain Muslim activists, and that he spoke against the proposed building of a mosque near New York City’s Ground Zero.

Paul Petterson, the head of the political science department at Central Connecticut State University, said Gejdenson is not likely to come under attack.

“He’s an open-minded individual who looks at every side of an issue,” Petterson said.

Indeed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, once opposed Gejdenson’s re-election because he objected to a proposal that would increase Israel’s foreign aid allocation at the expense of needier nations.