– The U.S. has made significant strides in promoting religious freedom abroad in the last two years, says the outgoing U.S. religious freedom ambassador.
One “success” of his tenure at the State Department was “the work that we’re quietly doing day in and day out on behalf of prisoners of conscience,” the former Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rabbi David Saperstein insisted at a panel discussion on religious freedom, held Thursday in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Religion News Foundation.
These “prisoners of conscience” might be religious leaders, political dissidents or human rights activists jailed because of their public beliefs and advocacy. The State Department helps obtain “security” or “legal support” for these people, or helps them leave their country, Saperstein said.
Their lawyers and defendants have credited the United States’ advocacy with the release of their clients from prison, he noted.
Rabbi Saperstein, who led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism before his time at State, was confirmed by the Senate as the State Department’s Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom in December of 2014, filling a 14 month-long vacancy in the position.
The ambassador is charged with promoting religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy, reporting on human rights abuses, and holding foreign actors accountable for how they treat religious minorities.
The office was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which also mandated the State Department publish an annual global report on religious freedom.
In March of 2016, during Rabbi Saperstein’s tenure as ambassador, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Islamic State – also known as Daesh, ISIS, and ISIL – was committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
The genocide declaration was hailed as a key act in the resettlement of the persecuted minorities in the region, one that could help them obtain needed humanitarian aid, priority resettlement status, and a safe return home if they chose to do so. It came almost two years after ISIS swept across Northern Iraq, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of ethnic and religious minorities that inhabited the region.
Advocates had insisted for months that the U.S. declare genocide had taken place. According to reports, the agency originally planned to declare that only Yazidis in Northern Iraq were genocide victims, based off of a Holocaust Museum fact-finding mission in the region that focused only on atrocities committed on the Nineveh Plain during the summer of 2014.
However, after a request by Ambassador Saperstein, the Knights of Columbus and the advocacy group In Defense of Christians published an almost 300-page report from a fact-finding mission to Iraq, documenting atrocities committed by ISIS against Christians and other minorities, and featuring interviews with genocide survivors and legal documents, Secretary Kerry issued the genocide declaration. In an interview with CNA, Saperstein revealed that the declaration came about at Kerry’s insistence.
“That genocide finding took place because the Secretary wanted it,” Saperstein said. “He demanded far more information than had been available when he began this process, when there clearly wasn’t enough information available to make a finding.”
Saperstein noted that the situation in Iraq and Syria differed from previous instances where the U.S. declared genocide, like in Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Bosnia.
“Here, most people fled before ISIL came in and the ones left under ISIL control were not available to people. Just now in Mosul, we’re just learning about the extent of the brutality of what was going on under ISIL’s control,” he explained. “So we didn’t have the same information available.”
Former Secretary Kerry “really deserves the credit for this finding,” he continued, noting that the U.S. “had already been acting as if there was such a finding” by intervening to send supplies to Yazidis cut off from food and water on Mt. Sinjar in August of 2014, and establishing a military coalition to counter the Islamic State.
The global state of religious freedom is still dire, he insisted, noting that three-fourths of the world’s population still lives in countries like China, India, and Pakistan where freedom of religion is significantly restricted.
In these countries “religious communities, particularly religious minorities, still face significant threats from social hostilities, from other religious groups, or repressive actions of the government in controlling what they can say or how they can worship or what they can do as part of their religious communities,” he said, giving examples of anti-blasphemy laws, onerous registration requirements for minority religions, and laws prohibiting conversion.
An increase in its budget and staff has boosted the office’s efforts, Saperstein noted. In his two years as ambassador, he said the office’s budget doubled, its “programmatic money quintupled,” and its staff doubled in size.
The Office on Religion and Global Affairs also has done key work in studying “the role of religion” in all areas of life from public policy to economics to “conflict resolution,” he said.
“You ended up with a situation at the end of this administration where there were some 50 people working day in and day out on nothing other than religious issues in the United States government,” he said. “It’s probably more dedicated staff just to that issue than all the governments of the world put together” on international religious freedom.
“That’s quite a vote of confidence as to the importance of religious issues in the United States,” he added, noting that “across the globe…many of the cardinals and bishops that I met with were very encouraged” by this.
And the State Department has crafted an “international coalition” to help genocide victims resettle in their homes, stay where they currently are like in Iraqi Kurdistan, or move elsewhere, he said. “The UN is playing a key role in achieving that with significant American support.”
The coalition is dealing with issues like “security measures” for genocide victims to live peacefully, “economic development” in the region, empowering them to have a role in rebuilding Iraq, preserving their cultures, and punishing the perpetrators of genocide.