The Stew Reporting on news from inside the Beltway

A new era for international religious freedom?

Politics | Big changes are underway at the State Department amid key religious liberty post confirmation process
by Evan Wilt
Posted 10/05/17, 03:42 pm

WASHINGTON—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 Wednesday, 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.”

Associated Press/Photo by Maya Alleruzzo Associated Press/Photo by Maya Alleruzzo Iraqi women pray during Easter mass in Qaraqosh, Iraq.

Running out of time

Religious minorities in Iraq and Syria could become a distant memory soon if the United States doesn’t take significant steps to help them, advocates told Washington lawmakers this week.

Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities are victims of genocide at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, according to the U.S. State Department. Although ISIS no longer retains control of much of its former territory, its victims still suffer from the aftermath. Thousands of displaced religious minorities have no home to return to.

“I am sad to say that if bold action is not taken by the end of the year, I believe a tipping point will be reached and we will see the end of Christianity in Iraq,” Frank Wolf, senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, told a congressional panel Tuesday. “In other words, ISIS will have been victorious in their genocidal rampage.”

The U.S. State Department twice declared ISIS responsible for genocide. Despite this, government bureaucrats still have not allocated a single dollar of federal money to support victims in the region. In the final appropriations bill at the end of the last fiscal year, Congress required the executive branch to fund assistance efforts.

“But career staff at the State Department and USAID have ignored the law and thwarted the will of the president, the Congress, and the people we represent,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House panel on Global Human Rights, said Tuesday. “These bureaucrats have refused to direct assistance to religious and ethnic minority communities, even to enable them to survive genocide.”

Smith worked with Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., to draft H.R. 390 in the House. The bill would cut some of the red tape at the State Department and direct millions of desperately needed aid dollars to the survivors who most need help.

H.R. 390 passed a voice vote in the House in June but remained dormant in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until it passed unanimously Sept. 19. The Senate still has not scheduled a full vote, and the money Congress appropriated last year has already expired.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the crisis Wednesday. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., called H.R. 390 a strong bill and agreed they would like to see it passed. Rubio said he hoped supporters could work through red-tape delays. —E.W.

Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik (file) Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik (file) Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.

Embattled congressman opts for retirement

UPDATE (4:45 p.m.): On Thursday afternoon, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., decided he would resign from Congress, accelerating his departure from Washington. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., announced the resignation, which takes effect Oct. 21. Ryan said Murphy made the decision but that he agreed it was time for the eight-term congressman to “move on to the next chapter in his life.”

OUR EARLIER REPORT: Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., announced Wednesday he plans to retire after his mistress revealed he wanted her to get an abortion. Murphy confessed a few weeks ago to an affair with forensic psychologist Shannon Edwards, someone he used to work with. He only confessed to the misconduct after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette prevailed in a court motion to unseal Edwards’ divorce case. Then on Tuesday, the Post-Gazette reported Murphy pressured Edwards to have an abortion when she feared she might be pregnant. 

“And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options,” Edwards texted Murphy in response to a Facebook statement from Murphy’s office ahead of a vote on a 20-week abortion ban. 

“I get what you say about my March for Life messages. I’ve never written them. Staff does them. I read them and winced. I told staff don’t write any more. I will,” Murphy texted Edwards in response, according to the Post-Gazette. 

Murphy won past endorsements from pro-life groups, is a member of the House Pro-Life Caucus, and voted Tuesday in support of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Amid the glaring hypocrisy, Murphy announced it’s time to leave Congress. 

“After discussions with my family and staff, I have come to the decision that I will not seek reelection to Congress at the end of my current term,” Murphy said in his statement. In the coming weeks he plans to take time to work through his “personal difficulties and seek healing.” —E.W.

Gun reforms back in the spotlight

After Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, there’s a renewed vigor on Capitol Hill for gun-control legislation. Typically, such bills are a nonstarter for Republicans, but some appear open to limited reforms. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced a bill on Wednesday that would ban devices that increase the firing rate of a semi-automatic rifle. Investigators found several such devices, known as “bump stocks,” in the Las Vegas shooter’s hotel room. Fully automatic weapons have been illegal in the United States for more than 30 years, but gun sellers have sold bump stocks and similar devices since 2010. 

Feinstein’s bill doesn’t have any Republican co-sponsors, but several GOP senators said Wednesday they are open to holding hearings on the issue. In the House, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said he’s drafting bipartisan legislation to ban the devices. And Rep. Bill Flores, a Texas gun owner who once chaired the conservative Republican Study Committee, told The Hill he supports banning bump stocks: “There’s no reason for a typical gun owner to own anything that converts a semi-automatic to something that behaves like an automatic.” Republicans aren’t ready for extensive changes to gun laws but growing support for a so-called bump-stock ban shows they might be ready to dialogue after the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association released a statement Thursday afternoon saying bump stocks should be “subject to additional regulations.”—E.W.

Haley gets Hatched

Most Twitter users know retweets do not equal endorsements, but that’s not true in all cases. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, received a warning this week from the federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) for retweeting an endorsement President Donald Trump gave to a South Carolina congressional candidate. The OSC said Haley’s retweet ran afoul of the Hatch Act, which prevents government officials from campaigning. The president and vice president are exempt from the rule. Haley’s tweet came from her personal account, but the OSC said her retweet still “gave the impression that she was acting in her official capacity.” —E.W.

Evan Wilt

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

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