President Obama’s rhetoric on religious freedom and actions reflect a disparity in priorities. Throughout the summer we have seen a literal genocide targeting all religious minorities in Iraq unfold. There is a plethora of videos and reports depicting the barbaric slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq. Most of the minorities fortunate enough to escape left with only the clothes they were wearing and had all possessions of value stolen by these terrorists. Some of these refugees have died of thirst and starvation on Mt. Sinjar while Western governments and the United Nations have vacillated on an appropriate response.
President Obama signed a bill into law which provides for the appointment of a Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia on August 8, 2014. The bill sat unsigned for 10 days which is not a lot of time. But, considering the dire state of religious minorities worldwide and the President’s statements on the topic, one would think he could have made time to keep the process of appointing a Special Envoy moving forward.
Now that he has signed the Special Envoy bill, the president needs to immediately appoint a qualified Special Envoy who can work alongside the newly appointed Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi Saperstein. The Special Envoy is tasked with promoting religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia, the region of the world that is experiencing the greatest threats to religious freedom and cost of human lives through religiously motivated attacks. The Special Envoy will have access to the President and ensure the needs of religious minorities are included in top-level national security and foreign policy discussions. The Special Envoy also has a critical role in helping address urgent needs of minorities according to their religious identity. Thus, the Special Envoy would assist with issues such as the refugee crisis of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, and the on-going socio-economic predicament associated with these displaced religious minorities who no longer have a means to earn an income.
It is critical that a Special Envoy be appointed to address these issues in concert with the Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom who, as the head of the Office of International Religious Freedom, oversees the annual monitoring of religious freedom worldwide and will also be engaging in diplomacy in support of these minorities. The US Representatives and Senators who drafted this legislation envisioned two individuals focusing on different aspects of religious freedom issues, working harmoniously together to better integrate and prioritize the promotion of religious freedom in US foreign policy, recognizing the key role of this first freedom.
Unfortunately, President Obama doesn’t have a particularly good track record of acting on behalf of persecuted minorities. Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, he said, “I look forward to nominating our next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to help lead these efforts. And we’re moving ahead with our new strategy to partner more closely with religious leaders and faith communities as we carry out our foreign policy.” Yet, Obama left that very same position vacant for over nine months.
The ongoing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, as well as increasing attacks and limitations on religious freedom for minorities in places such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Libya demonstrate a clear need for the administration to act quickly in defense of religious minorities by appointing a Special Envoy to promote religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia.
The Special Envoy should have demonstrated policy and diplomatic experience, specifically in the field of international religious freedom, not just an interest in this area or religious leadership experience. The candidate should have a reputation for collaborative and professional efforts in the promotion of religious freedom and already be acquainted with the major players in this field. Individuals such as Dr. Katrina Lantos-Swett (Mormon), Dr. Robert P. George (Christian), or Dr. Zuhdi Jasser (Muslim) of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom would all fit the criteria and each have a different faith background from the Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, Rabbi Saperstein. There are a number of other individuals in this field who have the requisite experience. There is no reason the position should be filled as soon as possible.
Lindsay Vessey is a human rights activist and the director of the Coptic Solidarity organization in Washington.
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