New religious freedom official: The time for action is now

The new U.S. religious freedom ambassador wasted no time emphasizing the urgency of his mission as he was sworn in on Feb. 20.

Feb 25, 2015

Rabbi David Saperstein in Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2013. Credit: World Economic Forum via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

WASHINGTON. D.C: The new U.S. religious freedom ambassador wasted no time emphasizing the urgency of his mission as he was sworn in on Feb. 20.

Noting that enemies of religious freedom “have grown alarmingly strong” worldwide, Ambassador David Saperstein quoted Dr. Martin Luther King that “we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now” and pledged to promote religious freedom around the globe.

“It will not be enough for us to mourn victims of religious persecution or even to condemn the traducers of faith who murder in its name,” Saperstein said. The U.S. must be “actualizing, facilitating, coordinating, mobilizing, shaping effective responses, even while learning from the best practices across the globe.”

Rabbi Saperstein is the fourth ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and the first non-Christian to hold the position. The seat has been vacant since October 2013 when then-ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook stepped down after serving since April 2011. The position was previously vacant since the end of the Bush presidency.

Saperstein was nominated by the Obama administration on July 28 and confirmed by the Senate on Dec. 12.

The position was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Its purpose is to promote religious freedom worldwide in part through meetings with foreign diplomats and an annual report on the global state of religious freedom. The State Department also designates certain grievous offenders of religious freedom as “Countries of Particular Concern.”

In his first remarks as ambassador, Saperstein invoked his Jewish faith and ancestry as a pillar of his devotion to religious freedom. He also warned of rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

“(L)ike most Jews, I know all too well that over the centuries, the Jewish people have been a quintessential victim of religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and demonization,” he said.

“(E)ven in Western Europe we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and anti-Semitic discourse and acts of desecration and violence against Jewish individuals, synagogues, and institutions and communities that we thought we would never, never see again after World War II.”

Saperstein also mentioned the martyrdom of 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of the terror group ISIS as more proof of global religious persecution.

“Most vividly, the whole world has witnessed the tragic, violent attacks by ISIL, known as Daesh, against peoples of many faiths – most recently the tragic, tragic targeting of Egyptian Copts in Libya,” he said.

Other victims he mentioned were Yazidi and Christians in Iraq, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, and Tibetian Bhuddists in China.

Saperstein promised to integrate religious freedom into all facets of the State Department’s mission and work closely with ministers worldwide on the matter.

Ultimately, he stated his mission was “to advocate for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief; for the rights of individuals to practice, choose and change their faith safely; not only living their faith through worship, but through teaching, preaching, practice, and observance; as well as the right to hold no religious beliefs; and consequently, to seek strongly anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws.”

Back in July, Saperstein’s nomination was met with some applause over his track record of promoting religious freedom internationally. Dr. Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, called him a “well regarded, long-time advocate for religious freedom” but added that he “will fail” if not given “the tools to succeed” by the administration.

However, critics pointed to Saperstein’s opposition to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision as evidence of a dubious record on domestic religious liberty. The legal group Alliance Defending Freedom said it was “troubling” that Saperstein believed businesses were not protected from the HHS birth control mandate.--CNA

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