President Obama has selected a new ambassador at large for international religious freedom amid a sudden flurry of activity on the issue, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy entity has expressed misgiving about his choice.
The White House announced Monday (July 28) Obama’s intention to nominate David Saperstein as ambassador after the post sat vacant for nine months. Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, was an original member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) but has taken liberal positions on various domestic issues.
In other developments regarding religious liberty overseas:
The State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom July 28, adding Turkmenistan to its list of the world’s most severe persecutors for the first time since 2006.
The House of Representatives passed legislation July 25 to authorize presidential appointment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia. The bill, previously approved by the Senate, now awaits Obama’s signature.
Saperstein, who must be confirmed by the Senate, strongly advocated for passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 and served as the first chairman of USCIRF, the bipartisan advisory panel established by the law. He was on the commission from 1999 to 2001.
He has advocated positions opposite those of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and other pro-life and religious liberty organizations, however. Saperstein, who was a member of Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011, backs abortion rights. He criticized the Supreme Court’s June opinion in the Hobby Lobby case that supported the religious freedom of for-profit employers. He stood at Obama’s side as the president signed an executive order July 21 to extend workplace protections among federal contractors to homosexual, bisexual and transgender status. Other religious liberty advocates said the religious exemption in the order would prove inadequate.
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) President Russell D. Moore said in a statement for Baptist Press, “While we strongly disagree with Rabbi Saperstein on many issues regarding domestic policy such as the recent Hobby Lobby ruling and issues related to the sanctity of unborn life, we are hoping that he will articulate a robust view of religious freedom around the world as he answers these questions in his Senate confirmation hearings.
“I had hoped for a strong defender of both domestic and international religious liberty, which is why I recommended Congressman Frank Wolf to the president,” Moore said. “Nonetheless, Rabbi Saperstein has my prayers, and I look forward to meeting with him about the vital issue of religious freedom around the world.”
In a July 15 letter, Moore urged Obama to name an ambassador quickly and suggested Wolf, a retiring Republican representative from Virginia, for the post. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the ambassador in October. Wolf has been a champion for global religious liberty during his 34-year House career.
Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research, said July 29 he disagrees with Saperstein on social and theological issues but believes he “would be a tireless, eloquent, fair-minded, effective champion” as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Describing Saperstein as a friend, Duke said in a July 29 post at the ERLC’s “Canon and Culture” blog channel, “If it should become clear that his liberal social and theological views will render him incapable of advocating equally for all people of faith, then I will declare him unfit for the position. As I do so, I will also be one of the most surprised men in Washington, D.C. ... I will be praying for Rabbi Saperstein and the Senate as they determine if David is the right man for a job that cannot go vacant a day longer than necessary. I wish him well.”
In announcing the nomination, Obama said he was grateful Saperstein “has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country.”
The State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom released July 28 included the addition of Turkmenistan to its “countries of particular concern (CPCs),” a designation reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. USCIRF, which makes annual recommendations to the State Department, had urged in April Turkmenistan and seven other countries be added to the CPC list.
The report said Turkmenistan, a former Soviet state in Central Asia, increased restrictions on members of religious groups and instituted monetary fines for distributing religious literature. The State Department also received reports of beatings and torture of religious adherents in Turkmenistan, according to the report.
Joining Turkmenistan as CPCs were eight countries on the list last named in 2011: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. USCIRF had called for CPC designation also for Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
In introducing the report, Secretary of State John Kerry said it “isn’t about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we’ve spoken the truth. I want our CPC designations to be grounded in plans, action that help[s] to change the reality on the ground and actually help people.
“[W]hen 75 percent of the world’s population still lives in countries that don’t respect religious freedoms, let me tell you, we have a long journey ahead of us,” Kerry said. “We have a long way to go when governments kill, detain, or torture people based on a religious belief.”
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., a leading congressional advocate for religious liberty overseas, criticized the State Department for not naming Vietnam to the CPC list, especially for its imprisonment of Christians and Buddhists. “Vietnam should without a doubt be on the sanctions list for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom – but it is glaringly absent,” said Smith, who also urged the United States to do more to protect religious adherents in China and Nigeria.
In its report, the State Department also said 2013 had “the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,” with “millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths” being forced from their homes because of their beliefs.
The latest example has occurred in Iraq, where Islamic militants recently purged Mosul, the country’s second largest city, of all Christians.
The legislation approved by the House July 25 to authorize a special envoy for religious liberty is designed to aid faith practitioners in such countries as Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Syria. Christians and adherents of other religious faiths increasingly are targets of repression and violence in countries in both the Near East – also known as the Middle East – and South Central Asia. The existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some areas, most notably Egypt and Iraq.
Wolf, sponsor of the House version of the bill, urged Obama to sign it immediately. “Time is of the essence,” he said in a July 28 statement. “Christianity as we know it is being wiped out right before our eyes in Iraq.”
The ERLC urged passage of the special envoy legislation.
The State Department’s report is available online at http://is.gd/J6L2Vu.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)