The new State Department ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom articulated a robust view of religious liberty in his first testimony before Congress.
Rabbi David Saperstein’s comments came Wednesday afternoon at a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing convened to discuss his office’s budget and role in combating religious persecution. Saperstein’s predecessor, Suzan Johnson Cook, served two-and-a-half ineffective years in the role and often only defended freedom of worship—limiting religious practice to what happens inside a place of worship or at home.
Saperstein denounced that limited view, noting freedom of worship leaves out a person’s right to religious education, proselytizing, and generally live out one’s faith in the public square: “It is important that that be the message going out to the world.”
Much of the hearing focused on the Islamic State’s ongoing destruction in the Middle East. Jay Sekulow, president of the American Center for Law and Justice and a witness at the hearing, called the Islamic State’s ideology “as toxic as the Nazis,” and said the violence in the Middle East alone is producing the equivalent of a 9/11 every day.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the State, Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said the ongoing conflict is “clearly a religious war” and called the hearing one of the most compelling he has attended in 20 years in office.
“It laid out the case of basically religious genocide,” he told me afterward. “This is a national security problem, it is a moral problem, it is an under-resource problem. You just can’t kill terrorists to make us safe. You have to build up other people.”
Graham voiced support for increasing the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom budget, which is currently $3.5 million but will decrease with the next round of sequestration cuts. According to Saperstein, the office has 20 employees operating in 16 countries.
Several lawmakers assailed the Obama administration’s failure to create a special envoy for religious freedom in the Middle East, even though Congress overwhelmingly approved the position last year. The position remains unfilled, but the State Department last month created a new position Congress didn’t ask for: the first special envoy for LGBT rights.
Saperstein indicated the State Department doesn’t have funding for the religious freedom special envoy. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told me he finds that hard to believe: “They have the resources. The administration has even recently invented new envoys and found money for them in other areas, so it’s interesting to hear the implication today that we just don’t have enough money to do a religious liberty envoy.”
Lankford said he would also like to see Saperstein’s office play an enhanced role in administration negotiations, particularly in trade talks with countries that infringe on religious freedom: “When we are actually negotiating with Vietnam to do international trade and we’re not discussing religious liberty issues, we’re leaving out one of the levers we have to actually be an influence.”
Several Republicans criticized the Obama administration for not securing the release of pastor Saeed Abedini and others as a precondition for engaging in nuclear talks with Iran. Sekulow, who represents Abedini, praised Saperstein for taking high interest in the case soon after taking office. He said such efforts are keeping Abedini alive.
“Ambassador Saperstein seems to be the right guy at the right time,” Graham said. “Staying on top of this problem makes us safer. Not only is it safer, it’s the right thing to do.”
— by J.C. Derrick