By Cherilyn Crowe
“Either David Saperstein was created with the job of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom in mind, or the job was created with him in mind,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared before a packed room of religious and political leaders, including members of the Baptist Joint Committee staff.
Kerry made his remarks at the U.S. Department of State before administering the oath of office to Rabbi Saperstein as the fourth United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. During the event, Kerry highlighted Saperstein’s “steady voice” and spotlighted the crucial role religious liberty plays in the work of the State Department.
“[S]ince the days of Thomas Jefferson, religious freedom has been at the absolute center of American values and an essential component of our foreign policy, and it is especially relevant right now for all of the obvious and tragic reasons,” Kerry said.
Kerry explained that, while the current generation prides itself on modernity, “we are still grappling with rivalries that have their roots in the distant past.” Kerry pointed out that thousands of people are in prison around the world because of their religious practices or beliefs. “In the Central African Republic, Christian and Muslim militias are engaged in a bloody conflict.
In Burma, radical Buddhists are seeking to deny citizenship to an Islamic minority. In the Middle East and Africa, terror networks such as Daesh and Boko Haram are betraying fundamental principles of their own religion of Islam. Major European cities are struggling to cope with the aftermath of terror attacks, amid evidence of anti-Semitism, radicalization, Islamophobia,” Kerry said.
During his remarks, Kerry noted the long journey Saperstein traveled to be confirmed and said that, now that there finally is an ambassador in place, “we’re going to use him.” After Baptist minister Suzan Johnson Cook resigned from the position in October 2013, the role remained empty for more than a year. Saperstein was nominated in July 2014 and confirmed by the Senate in December with a 62-35 vote.
While the ceremony took place Feb. 20, Saperstein officially began his duties Jan. 6. Kerry revealed that Saperstein already is the chief adviser on religious liberty for both himself and President Barack Obama.
Kerry said they turned to Saperstein because they wanted someone who was “indelibly defined for this passion, someone who was incredibly smart, tough as nails, persuasive, and who has a real appreciation for the ethical values that truly are a critical part of the foundation of every major religious tradition.”
Kerry disclosed that they also wanted someone who “wouldn’t be shy in speaking up for religion, and in pointing out all the contributions that faith communities make each day” in realms including peacebuilding, preventing genocide, promoting human rights, helping people to escape hunger and more.
“The terrorists may scream from the rooftops that their crimes are God’s will,” Kerry said, “but you can’t frame God for what thugs do.” He also said that, while any “idiot” can commit murder, “there isn’t a sword sharp enough to destroy truth.”
Kerry discussed Saperstein’s “incredible” 40 years at the head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where he emerged as one of the country’s leading voices on behalf of social justice. Kerry also mentioned the times during his own Senate career that he worked with Saperstein, including pushing for the proposed Workplace Religious Freedom Act (“which unfortunately never passed,” Kerry noted).
“Religious liberty implies an attitude towards others which extends beyond mere tolerance,” Kerry said. “Naming and shaming has its place here and there, but when it comes to religious freedom, our goal is less to make other countries do what we want them to, rather than to convince them to want what we want, to help them understand that their societies will do better and be more united when their citizens are able to practice every aspect of their faiths without coercion or fear. Religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all. Religious discrimination can be the source of conflicts that endanger all.”
Kerry concluded his remarks by administering the oath of office to Saperstein, and the ambassador turned to the crowd to reveal his goals and personal journey to the position.
“During my career, my mandate has indeed covered a wide range of issues, but there are few that have been as central to my heart as that of religious freedom,” Saperstein shared. “[L]ike most Jews, I know all too well that over the centuries, the Jewish people have been a quintessential victim of religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and demonization.”
“This is just one key reason why I stand here today, to affirm that I cannot remain silent,” he declared.
Saperstein identified a broad range of threats to religious freedom and religious communities around the world, including the devastation of historic Christian, Yezidi and other communities in Iraq and Syria. He also shed light on discrimination, harassment, persecution, and more affecting Baha’is in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists in China, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and Rohingya Muslims in Burma. Saperstein noted that, in Western Europe, there is a “steady increase” in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and anti-Semitic discourse and violence, such that “we thought we would never, never see again after World War II.”
Saperstein said he is entering his new set of responsibilities “at a time when forces aligned against religious freedom have grown alarmingly strong.” While religious freedoms flourish in many countries, he pointed out that, according to the Pew Forum, “75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom remains seriously limited and many religious minorities face persecution, intimidation, and harassment.”
“Most vividly, the whole world has witnessed the tragic, violent attacks by ISIL, known as Daesh, against peoples of many faiths – most recently the tragic, tragic targeting of Egyptian Copts in Libya,” Saperstein said. “Even as we must respond to this specific crisis, we will win the battle of freedom only when our long-term goal must be to ensure the internationally recognized right to religious freedom for everyone and every group. It is an urgent task and the needs are great.”
Saperstein affirmed five priorities in his new role, with his first priority focused on using the position “fervently.” In doing so, he plans “to advocate for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief; for the rights of individuals to practice, choose and change their faith safely; not only living their faith through worship, but through teaching, preaching, practice, and observance; as well as the right to hold no religious beliefs; … .”
His other four priorities include integrating religious freedom robustly and firmly into the United States’ statecraft, ensuring the integrity of the annual International Religious Freedom report, elevating the focus of religious freedom in organizations within the international community, and drawing on the insights of others in supporting civil society – including religious communities – in shaping policies that contribute to isolating and delegitimizing extremist religious voices.
He said he plans to work closely with Shaun Casey, who serves as U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, to enhance the State Department’s engagement with religious issues and communities.
Saperstein concluded with the charge that the State Department, Congress, administration and nation together can be – and must be – a “beacon of light and hope” to the religiously oppressed in every land.
BJC Executive Director Brent Walker, General Counsel Holly Hollman and Board Chair Curtis Ramsey-Lucas from American Baptist Churches, USA, were among those at the ceremony. Hollman said Saperstein’s comments “energized” the crowd. “After working closely with David Saperstein over the years, we know firsthand his commitment to religious liberty,” she said. “His expertise and passion for this work make him the perfect person to champion religious liberty around the world, and we look forward to supporting his efforts.”
In his first few months as ambassador, Saperstein is speaking out. He testified before Congress on both the threat of ISIL and the need to protect religious liberty abroad. Additionally, he condemned several tragedies, including an attack on two churches in Pakistan; arson and denigrating graffiti at a Greek Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem and a mosque in the West Bank; and the murder of humanist activist Avijit Roy, to name a few. You can see the latest work of Saperstein and his office by following @AmbSaperstein on Twitter.
From the April 2015 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next article.