Lawmakers urge Trump to appoint religious freedom ambassador

Religious Liberty | New resolution asks the White House to follow through on pledges to support international religious liberty
by Evan Wilt
Posted 5/12/17, 02:02 pm

WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a resolution Thursday urging the Trump administration to nominate an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

“The right to practice any faith, or have no faith, is a fundamental human right of all people, no matter where they live on earth,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., one of the resolution’s sponsors. “It is important that America stands up for religious freedom and unequivocally denounces anti-religious violence, oppression, and genocide around the world. That’s what this resolution calls for.”

Lankford teamed up with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Chris Coons, D-Del., to file the resolution in the Senate, while Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Jody Hice (R-Ga.), and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), introduced a nearly identical resolution in the House. Together they ask the Trump administration to appoint a new ambassador on international religious freedom, a position vacant since David Saperstein left in January. The resolution also calls for the White House to begin implementing existing law and allocate resources within the State Department to foster more awareness of and aid to persecuted minorities.

Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued its 2017 Annual Report showing international religious freedom diminishing around the world. Countries such as North Korea, China, Syria, and Iran continue to silence Christians and other religious minorities. And for the first time, USCIRF identified Russia as a “country of particular concern.”

But without an ambassador-at-large, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom office lacks needed leadership amid the growing worldwide tumult.

Knox Thames, the department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, assured me the State Department still cares about international religious freedom.

“The office of International Religious Freedom continues to track religious freedom violations worldwide and strategize how the United States can push for greater respect for religious freedom,” he said. “That mission hasn’t changed and will continue. The issue is more relevant than ever.”

On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at The World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, insisting the Trump administration will prioritize international religious freedom around the world.

In December, President Barack Obama signed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which elevated the ambassador-at-large position and made religious freedom training mandatory for State Department foreign service officers. It also allows the ambassador to develop the curriculum for that training, among other things. But without an ambassador in place, many parts of law aren’t enforced.

Franklin Graham, who organized the World Summit and asked Pence to speak, told me the Trump administration is saying all the right things regarding international religious freedom.

“I’m not sure it’s fair to judge them on 110 days or whatever it is now,” Graham told me. “They don’t even have all the government put together. But a year from now, if the needle has not moved, I think it will be time to speak out.”

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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