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A Pakistani refugee cries as she leaves a detention center with her family on a bus in Bangkok on June 6, 2011. The Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is often targeted in attacks by Islamic extremists. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A new era for international religious freedom?

People often ask Sam Brownback what to call him: governor? Senator? He hopes soon to add a new option to the list: ambassador.

The Republican governor of Kansas and former U.S. senator is President Donald Trump’s choice to take over as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a post vacant since January.

Brownback came to Washington for his confirmation hearing Oct. 4, putting him one step closer to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom (IRF) office—a group that could look quite different if and when he takes charge.

At the end of August, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to Congress outlining a proposed State Department makeover. Tillerson wants to eliminate or defund dozens of special envoy positions and consolidate various offices and bureaus. The proposal includes funneling the department’s representative for Muslim communities, its special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia into the IRF office. Tillerson also plans to merge the department of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA) with IRF.

The secretary of state implemented a hiring freeze at the State Department earlier this year and asked Congress to cut back on spending. Tillerson hopes the restructuring will streamline the department’s work.

But his plan to merge so much into the IRF office has received mixed reviews.

“We don’t know whether or not there will be money coming with it,” former Ambassador-at-Large David Saperstein told me. “Otherwise IRF’s going to have to cut back its staff in order to bring the RGA people over. I think it’s a weaker structure having them merged into one.”

Saperstein hopes Tillerson will reconsider, but not because he’s concerned about Brownback serving in the expanded role. As a Democrat appointed under the Obama administration, Saperstein has plenty of disagreements with Brownback. “But not on these issues,” Saperstein said.

Tom Farr, a Georgetown University associate professor and president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told me adding more responsibilities to IRF is a good idea.

“If you’ve worked in any bureaucracy, you’d know sometimes groups just don’t talk to each other,” he said. “So if you have one guy at the top of it who is coordinating it and making sure everybody is speaking out of one songbook so to speak—it’s very important. I think Ambassador-designate Brownback can do that.”

While in Congress in 1998, Brownback helped guide legislation that created the ambassador-at-large position. If confirmed, Brownback said Wednesday he hopes to fulfill the role’s original mission: putting partisan politics to rest for the sake of international religious freedom.

But he faces an uphill battle.

Religious freedom advocates tell me a culture of indifference toward religion pervades the State Department. Faith McDonnell, director of religious liberty programs at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said some staffers don’t respect anyone who works in the IRF office. “It’s been that way a long time,” she said.

It didn’t help when the Obama administration pushed the State Department to promote social issues abroad, McDonnell added. In 2015, then–Secretary of State John Kerry appointed Randy Berry to be the first special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons. Berry remains in the Trump State Department, and, according to his letter, Tillerson has no plans to change that.

The ambassador-at-large for international religious liberty doesn’t deal with LGBT issues, but that didn’t stop Democrats from pressing Brownback on the subject during his confirmation hearing.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Brownback about an executive order he issued in Kansas to rescind special protections for homosexual and transgender state workers. Then, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., raised concerns about Brownback’s pro-life record.

Brownback deflected each one and asserted, if confirmed, he wants to stay in the lane of religious freedom issues and leave social issues to lawmakers.

I asked him if he fears politicization could distract from the ambassador-at-large’s mission.

“I hope not,” he said. “It will mean the significant diminution [of] the value of the position and the effectiveness if it gets drug into difficult domestic debates. It has purposely been kept away from that and it should be now.”

— by Evan Wilt

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