Making a Case for Urgency in Naming U.S. Religious Freedom Ambassador

“International religious freedom is not a ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ issue. It is not even a ‘bipartisan issue.’ It is a non-partisan issue—an American issue.”Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, Legal Advisor, The Catholic Association Foundation
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, Legal Advisor, Catholic Association Foundation
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer urges rapid appointment of U.S. Religious Freedom Ambassador.

Picciotti-Bayer’s Opinion piece was published in The Hill April 23 and is presented here in its entirety.

The University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and the Religious Freedom Institute just held a day-long symposium on the persecution of Christians world-wide. Government officials, business leaders, academics, human rights and religious leaders gathered at the National Press Club to discuss how Christians respond to persecution and promote religious freedom for all. One individual was noticeably missing: The U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

She or he was not there because the post is currently vacant.

The Religious Freedom Institute and Center on Faith and International Affairs in March made the call to appoint an IRF Ambassador as its most important policy recommendation to the Administration and Congress. A Feb. 1 letter from over 700 religious leaders, educators, scholars, business leaders and human rights activists prepared by the Wilberforce Initiative similarly did so. As Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, D.C., in his keynote address at the symposium encouraged, these experts “raise their voices to amplify the muffled cries of those who suffer.”

Sadly, despite increased attention to religion in U.S. Foreign Policy, religious persecution remains dangerously high. The Pew Research Center found in 2016 that 74 percent of the world's population lives in countries with high or very high restriction or outright hostility to religion.

The Knights of Columbus in a 300-page report documented genocide against Christians in the Middle East—mass murders and deportations, torture, kidnapping for ransom, sexual enslavement and rape of girls and women, forcible conversions to Islam and the destruction of Christian churches, monasteries, cemeteries and artifacts by the Islamic State—and former Secretary of State Kerry designated last year the violence by ISIS against Yezidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria as “ongoing genocide.”

The recent slaughter of Coptic Christians in Egypt during Sunday worship services is another tragic reminder that we must continue to speak up.

International religious freedom is not a “Republican” or “Democrat” issue. It is not even a “bipartisan issue.” It is a non-partisan issue—an American issue. The United States was the first nation to constitutionally guarantee religious freedom. Our protection of this freedom here and our leadership abroad is consistent with international norms of justice and the protection of minorities. Where religious freedom is protected, all other freedoms are more likely to be recognized. It is the “freedom of freedoms.”

And it’s not simply a human rights matter. Responding to the plight of the persecuted promotes greater international stability and security here at home. It is a crucial part of our national and international security. The absence of religious freedom contributes to the persecution of minorities, extremism, terrorism, and economic instability. In contrast, the protection of religious freedom contributes to stable democracy, vibrant civil society and economic growth and development.

The linkage between these ideals and our security interests has been recognized over the last 20 years. In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), establishing the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, led by an IRF Ambassador at Large. In December 2016, the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act amended the 1998 law to require that the IRF Ambassador report directly to the Secretary of State–this was important because whom you report to in Washington, D.C., can be key to getting your message heard and acted upon at all.

Of course, having that IRF Ambassador at Large in place is critical. The prior Ambassador at Large, Rabbi David N. Saperstein, is widely acclaimed for his work. In fact, Ambassador Saperstein was present at the symposium and contributed as a panelist. Delay in the appointment of a successor runs the risk of losing all of the work and connections realized.

President Trump has spoken of his deep concern for the persecution of religious minorities abroad. The prompt nomination and confirmation of an IRF Ambassador among the first wave of non-Cabinet Presidential appointments will have symbolic and substantive import. It will show the importance our country continues to place on religious freedom. It will show our invigorated leadership in promoting both our ideals and our security and, God willing, make the volume of our voices on behalf of those persecuted difficult to ignore.

Frank R. Wolf Religious Freedom Restoration Act David N. Saperstein Catholic Association Foundation U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Andrea Picciotti-Bayer