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Angst grows over potential religious freedom vacancy

Ambassador-at-large David Saperstein is poised to leave next week

A Pakistani Christian asylum-seeker who fled persecution walks by a cross drawn on a wall at an apartment building on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand. Associated Press/Photo by Sakchai Lalit

Angst grows over potential religious freedom vacancy

WASHINGTON—A growing group of advocates and lawmakers is calling on the incoming Trump administration to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF) in its first 100 days to combat proliferating religious conflict around the globe.

The push comes as numerous high-profile confirmation hearings begin this week on Capitol Hill, sparking concern the IRF ambassador could get lost in the shuffle—again. The position remained vacant for 16 months after President George W. Bush took office and for 27 months under President Barack Obama.

“In a world in which religious persecution and violent religious extremism are virulent, destabilizing, and growing, the new administration cannot afford such lassitude in filling this position,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. “It should fill the position immediately.”

The current IRF ambassador, David Saperstein, has received praise from across the political spectrum for his diplomatic and bureaucratic skills. Saperstein has offered to stay until his replacement is confirmed, but a transition memo, first reported by The New York Times, said without exception all ambassadors are required to leave their posts by Inauguration Day.

The IRF ambassador has traditionally been viewed as strictly a human rights position, but amid the rise of ISIS and growing religious extremism in recent years, many now see it as a key tool in the war on terror—which President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to wage with tenacity.

“[There is] mounting evidence that countries that maintain broad, plural, and inclusive religious freedom are less prone to violence, less likely to export terrorism, and more likely to grow their overall economy,” said Elijah Brown with the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. “Religious freedom is much more than a secondary, periphery issue narrowly constrained to participation in worship.”

Last month Congress approved and Obama signed into law a bill to empower the IRF ambassador, including a provision that made the position report directly to the secretary of state.

Saperstein’s success and the newly vested clout of the office has led to a surge of interest in the position, but some still worry it could fall prey to another lengthy vacancy. Members of both the House and Senate have urged the transition team to fill the position promptly.

“The administration needs a strong voice at the State Department on this issue,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights.

Farr said that until a replacement is confirmed, Saperstein should be retained. Letting the position fall vacant would send a bad message to the watching world, he insisted.

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative is circulating a letter—so far signed by more than 400 activists—calling on Trump to nominate or retain both an IRF ambassador and a special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia in his first 100 days in office.

The current special adviser, Knox Thames, also has won bipartisan praise for his work, after Congress created the position in 2014. It, too, sat vacant for more than a year. But a separate issue threatens to prematurely end his tenure.

As a schedule B employee, Thames, a career civil servant, should be able to stay in his position, but Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy has informed all schedule B hires they will be terminated on Jan. 31. That means Thames will have 11 days to negotiate with his new bosses—and it puts the Office of International Religious Freedom in danger of losing its top two leaders.

“During this unconventional transition, I encourage the Trump administration to make religious freedom positions a priority and maintain key offices within the State Department,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the State Department. “As a world leader for freedom and the protection of basic human rights, the United States should take every opportunity to advocate for people to think, believe, and act according to their religious belief.”

J.C. Derrick J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.


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