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World Magazine: Kerry questioned about religious freedom post

Monday, October 12, 2015

World Magazine

Religious Liberty | State Department ignores congressional request, demotes religious freedom diplomats
By J.C. Derrick Posted Oct. 8, 2015, 11:35 a.m.

WASHINGTON—The U.S. State Department ignored last year’s congressional request to appoint a special envoy for religious liberty in the Middle East and Asia, creating a lower-ranking advisory position instead. In a letter sent to the department today, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla, called on Secretary of State John Kerry to explain the discrepancy.

In the letter, Lankford questioned the administration’s commitment to international religious freedom and why it did not follow the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act. The bill created a special envoy for persecuted minorities, and Congress passed it without objection from either party.

Associated Press/Photo by Sue Ogrocki
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law in August 2014, but the position remained vacant until last month. Rather than appoint a special envoy, which would typically report directly to the secretary of state, the administration created a “special advisor” position that will report to David Saperstein, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

“Within the State Department, there are special envoys for climate change, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, to promote the rights of LGBT persons, and to promote Islamic cooperation,” Lankford wrote. “The administration has been clear that all of these issues are top priorities and the designation of special envoy reflects that.”

The administration quietly announced the appointment last month in a low-key rollout that included a tweet from Saperstein. The White House announced the new position as part of a long press release ahead of the pope’s September visit, but the release did not name the appointee, Knox Thames.

The international religious freedom community lauded the appointment of Thames, who previously worked for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Helsinki Commission, and State’s Office of International Religious Freedom under former Ambassador-at-Large John Hanford.

Hanford told me Thames is well-qualified “in experience, in sound judgment, and in his passion for the cause of religious freedom,” but “it’s inexplicable why the position was downgraded” from the congressional recommendation.

China Aid vice president Kody Kness, founder of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable’s Congressional Working Group, took a more nuanced approach to the appointment, noting the State Department's advisor position avoids a potentially long nomination and Senate confirmation process.

"Being an special advisor isn't necessarily problematic if Knox is given the access he needs and deserves," Kness said. "Time will tell.”

Lankford also drew attention to Saperstein’s downgraded position. The ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was ranked among the top 10 diplomats at the State Department when Congress created the post in a 1998 law signed by President Bill Clinton. Now it’s equal to a special envoy—the level at which Thames should be.

“The administration has taken the position that ‘promoting and protecting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy,’ yet the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is buried in layers of bureaucracy rather than reporting directly to you like the ambassadors-at-large for the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the Office of Global AIDS Coordinator,” Lankford wrote. “If it is a priority, it must be treated as such in terms of the position within the State Department.”

Hanford praised the letter as “very well-crafted and right on message.” He said it is good Congress added a new position to focus on proliferating problems in the Near East and Southeast Asia, rather than adding more to Saperstein’s slate of responsibilities.

Congress created the special envoy position last year to advocate for religious minorities in conflict-laden areas such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A Washington visit this week from a member of the Iraqi Parliament illustrated the ongoing crises. Vian Dakhil, whose 2014 plea sparked U.S. involvement, said 420,000 Yazidis are living in tents in refugee camps, women and girls continue to be kidnapped, and 2,200 girls remain in captivity as sexual slaves.

“I tell all the people we need help, please. I can’t do everything alone. We need someone to help us,” Dakhil said as she began to cry, according to Politico.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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"Bob Fu has dedicated his life to bringing freedom of religion to the Chinese people. His story is a testimony to the power of faith and an inspiration to people struggling to break free from oppression."
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