February 2, 2017
WORLD: Advocates urge Trump to Name Religious Freedom Ambassador
WASHINGTON—International religious freedom advocates on and off Capitol Hill have sent letters to President Donald Trump urging him to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
“The promotion of the freedom of religion—the right to practice any faith or to choose no faith at all—as a fundamental human right, is a proven source of stability for all countries,” wrote Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and eight other Republican senators. “The mission of the Office of International Religious Freedom should be to promote religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy.”
Lawmakers sent the letter late Wednesday, only hours after the Senate voted 56-43 to make Rex Tillerson the next secretary of state. During Tillerson’s confirmation hearing last month, senators from both parties probed his commitment to human rights.
In their letter, the 10 senators said past presidential transitions have led to lengthy vacancies for the ambassador-at-large position (16 months after President George W. Bush took office, and 27 months after President Barack Obama took office). They noted Congress intended to underscore “the centrality of religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy” when it approved recent legislation to make the ambassador-at-large report directly to the secretary of state.
Today the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative sent a separate letter to Trump—signed by 715 advocates—also asking him to promptly appoint a replacement for former Ambassador-at-Large David Saperstein, whose tenure ended Jan. 20.
This week, the administration retained Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia, ensuring the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom will continue to operate while it awaits a new ambassador-at-large.
“Had you lost Knox, particularly with what’s going on in Erbil and Mosul, it would have been disastrous,” said former Rep. Frank Wolf, referring to the situation in Iraq. Wolf, now a distinguished fellow at 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, praised the Trump administration, and especially transition aide Pam Pryor. “If the office empties out, you would have had a vacuum … and all the best people go to other bureaus.”
Wolf said the positive resolution of Thames’ situation is one of several signs that make him hopeful the Trump administration will make international religious freedom a priority.
“They get an A-plus,” Wolf said. “The next step is a quick appointment of a good person who really cares deeply about this issue.”
Trump has taken significant criticism since last week for an executive order temporarily suspending the refugee program and all immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries with histories of terrorist activity.
Today Trump referenced the importance of protecting persecuted minorities—including peace-loving Muslims, Jews, and Christians—at the National Prayer Breakfast.