The Obama administration said Monday it would nominate Rabbi David Saperstein as the next Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, as the state department issued its annual analysis of the state of religious freedom across the globe.
President Obama said he would nominate Saperstein to a position that has been vacant since October, when Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned. The current director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism would, if confirmed, be the first non-Christian to hold the job.
One of Saperstein's projects as head of the State Department's Office for International Religious Freedom would be to help compile the International Religious Freedom Report — the 2013 edition of which was also published on Monday.
The diagnosis from this year’s report, which analyzes religious freedom across the globe, is weighty: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”
The report goes country by country to examine how governments are repressing religious groups and ways that religious minorities face discrimination. In much of the Middle East, Christian presence is becoming “a shadow of its former self,” the report states. In Syria, some 160,000 Christians lived in Homs before the conflict began. Now only some 1,000 Christians do. In Burma’s western Rakhine state, violence against Muslims has displaced some 140,000 people since 2012. Shia Muslims face discrimination in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt. In Sri Lanka, violent Buddhist groups destroyed mosques and churches. In some European countries, anti-Semitism led as much as 48% of the Jewish population to consider emigrating.
The findings offer a global perspective on the contemporary fight for religious freedom, which in the U.S. has become almost synonymous with the fight against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, often led by conservative evangelical and Catholic groups. The religious oppression that faces millions of believers across the globe, however, represents an altogether more serious challenge to the free practice of faith.
So Saperstein, if confirmed, would have his work cut out for him. The Obama administration has faced criticism for leaving the ambassador-at-large post vacant for 10 months, particularly amid the increasing global threats to religious freedom outlined in the report. Secretary of State John Kerry underscored on Monday that religious freedom is an integral part of the U.S.’s global diplomatic engagement.
“One thing is for sure: Rabbi Saperstein is joining an important effort at a very important time," Kerry said. "I want to emphasize this effort is not about naming countries to lists in order to make us feel somehow that we have spoken the truth. I want our [countries of particular concern] designations to be grounded in plans, action, that help to change the reality on the ground and actually help people."