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What does the international religious freedom ambassador do?

POSTED: August 2, 2017 11:51 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

The White House announced Wednesday that it wants Gov. Sam Brownback to take on the role.

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The United States may soon have a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, after the White House announced Wednesday that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback would be put forward for confirmation.

The news pleased the many religious freedom advocates calling for the position to be filled, but left others confused about the Trump administration's priorities.

"It will interest you to know that, at the moment, the United States has no ambassador to South Korea. Other marginally important nations in which the country has no official representative include Germany, France, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. But, as of Wednesday night, we have a nominee to be the ambassador to an unknown land called religious freedom," wrote Charles P. Pierce for Esquire.

Irreverent responses didn't surprise those who work at the intersection of foreign policy and religion. For years, people have questioned America's efforts to support conscience rights around the world, said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, an organization founded by Seiple's father, Bob Seiple, the first international religious freedom ambassador.

"Sometimes people receive our concern about human rights and religious freedom as cultural imperialism," he said. "Sometimes it's received as looking out for Christians only."

Sean Casey, who previously served as the director of the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs, said it's fair to wonder about the value of this ambassadorship, since past leaders have struggled to have a measurable impact.

"Politics gets in the way of American diplomacy. We should be advocating for the right of any human being to practice their religion," he said.

However, improvements to the country's international religious freedom work can only be made if there's someone in place to direct them, said Katrina Lantos Swett, who previously served as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"All government work seems like you're drinking water out of a fire hose. There's always more coming at you than you can handle," she said. "But having leadership for the (international religious freedom) office is going to make a big difference."

Shifting job description

The position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a bill that Brownback, who was raised Methodist and converted to Catholicism in 2002, helped pass while in the Senate.

The legislation called for annual tracking of religion-related human rights violations and urged the State Department to wed foreign policy initiatives with faith-based outreach. The ambassador was to be a champion of conscience rights, helping government officials in the U.S. and abroad recognize the link between religious freedom and peace.

"The position is necessary for two reasons: first, to maintain America's leadership in assisting the millions of individuals and religious minorities suffering religious persecution around the world and, second, to enhance U.S. national security at home and abroad at a very low cost," said Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute and former director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom.

Four people have held the post since 1998, and each has had to be responsive to a daunting political climate and changing global landscape.

"All of these people who take this position go through the tsunami of learning the bizarre culture" of the State Department, Casey said, noting that it takes more than a passion for religious freedom to get things done.

The ambassador must listen to the needs and concerns of world leaders and then connect them to America's foreign policy goals, Seiple said.

"If we can't relate to people in their own context and then bring that (understanding) back to the context of American values and interest, it's a total waste of time," he said.

The most recent religious freedom ambassador, Rabbi David Saperstein, who left the post in January, was widely praised for his political savvy and activism. As rates of religious persecution rose around the world, he pushed to get prisoners of conscience released, blasphemy laws repealed and the Islamic State's actions in Iraq and Syria classified as genocide.

"Studies tell us that three-quarters of the world's population live in countries with significant restrictions on religious freedom or social hostilities because the majority population is intolerant and often acts violently against minority religious populations. There's a lot of work to be done, and country by country we do make improvements," Rabbi Saperstein told the Deseret News in November.

Under the leadership of a religion-friendly secretary of state, John Kerry, Saperstein was able to expand his office and join with Casey to boost religious awareness within the State Department.

"In the 22 months that I've been honored to hold this position, the size of my office has nearly doubled and our program money has increased five-fold to $20 million," Saperstein said.

Although only six months have passed since Rabbi Saperstein led the department, the new religious freedom ambassador may struggle to pick up where he left off, said Casey, who is now the director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

The Trump administration has discussed cuts at the State Department, which could dismantle religion-related projects. It's also pushed policies like a ban on travellers from six Muslim-majority countries, an approach that hurts America's international reputation, he added.

"I think the biggest challenge Brownback or whoever sits in that chair will face is the out-of-step religious freedom action this administration has taken," Casey said.

Religious freedom moving forward

Casey's comments point to the fact that the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom must overcome political roadblocks in order to make meaningful progress. In the past, the State Department has often failed to follow up its report on religious tolerance with new sanctions or initiatives.

"Generally, the effectiveness of this position has been marginal in that sense that what it's been reduced to is naming and shaming," Casey said. "There's not a lot of evidence that a foot stomp and annual report (of religious freedom violations) has any diplomatic impact at all."

Swett offered a more generous analysis, highlighting the importance of having the ambassador call attention to egregious human rights violations.

"Public naming, shaming and blaming tends to turn up the heat on the abusers," she said.

Even if public press conferences fall flat, the international religious freedom ambassador is in a position to convince the secretary of state and president to take religious violence seriously, Swett added.

"There's always a risk when it comes to human rights issues that they'll get lost in the shuffle," she said.

Swett and other religious freedom advocates said Brownback, who served in the House and Senate for 16 years before becoming governor, could be effective in the role because of his past government experience. He would be the first elected official to hold the ambassador-at-large position.

"Having the stature of a former senator may allow him to knock on doors that some appointees might not have been able to. That can be a plus," Seiple said.

While in the Senate, Brownback was an outspoken supporter of conscience rights. He was "an early advocate of U.S. action to stop genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, and visited Congo and Rwanda to decry humanitarian crises and call for better coordination in foreign aid programs," The Associated Press reported.

Brownback has to be confirmed by the Senate before he can begin his work, but he's already shared his excitement on Twitter and with the media.







"I'm doing this job because of my interest and passion in the field," Brownback told World Magazine.
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