As the Islamic State tears across Iraq and Syria this summer, sending religious minorities fleeing for their lives, Congress has created a new job at the State Department—one the president needs to fill immediately, say those who pushed for the position.
The job is “Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.”
Those regions “are the hot burning center” of the global problem of religious persecution,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, who heads the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which Congress created in 1998 to monitor the issue independent of the State Department.
Advocates for global religious freedom have lobbied for the position for years. Some say it is possible that the White House will combine the envoy’s duties with those of the larger portfolio of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The White House on Aug. 20 declined to comment on that possibility. In July, President Obama nominated Rabbi David Saperstein for the ambassador-at-large job; his nomination is pending before the Senate.
Lantos Swett said that while it seems as if Congress intended the ambassador-at-large and the special envoy to be two separate positions, Saperstein could handle both responsibilities. “A lot of people feel he would do an excellent job if this was rolled into his portfolio,” she said.
“I have confidence that Saperstein, whatever his title, can make a difference if he is given the authority and resources those positions warrant,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
But Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Vir., a lead sponsor of the bill for the special envoy, said the two jobs call for two people.
“There needs to be a person solely focused on the Middle East,” said Wolf spokesman Dan Scandling. “What is happening there demands the total—and focused—attention of a special envoy. The ambassador-at-large has the world. The special envoy would focus entirely on the Middle East.”
He added that while the ambassador must go through a Senate confirmation process, the envoy could be appointed and start serving far faster.
Obama’s nomination of Saperstein—a longtime activist on religious rights who has led the Washington office of Reform Judaism for four decades—was widely applauded by both Democrats and Republicans.
But whoever—or however many people—fills the unfilled religious freedom jobs, activists on the issue want them filled fast.
On Aug. 18, the lead sponsors of the legislation that created the envoy wrote to Obama and asked him to work on the appointment “immediately,” underlining the word.
“As you know well, the situation in the Middle East is desperate, and Christian and other religious minorities need the benefit of the new law,” Wolf and Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., wrote. Obama signed the new law on Aug. 8.
In recent months, the Islamic State has rampaged across Muslim and non-Muslim communities, demanding that people choose conversion to Islam or death, and kidnapping girls and women as wives for Islamic State fighters. But militant forces and governments—as detailed in the annual U.S. report on international religious freedom—imperil other religious minorities across the Middle East and in South Central Asia.
For example, Islamic militants have attacked Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, killing the faithful and burning their churches. Members of the Baha’i faith are persecuted, incarcerated, and killed in Iran. And Ahmadi Muslims suffer mob violence in Pakistan, where many people consider them apostates. Anti-Semitism has erased Jewish communities across the Middle East.
The office of the special envoy, according to the law, comes with a $1 million budget.
Asked for comment on the special envoy, a White House spokesman confirmed that the president had signed the bill that created the job and urged the Senate to confirm a new ambassador-at-large.
“We are hopeful the Senate will quickly confirm Rabbi Saperstein to this important position,” said White House spokesman Shin Inouye.