Advocates for religious freedom are looking to the new Trump Administration to end the uncertainty surrounding two key positions within the State Department.
As of now, the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (SEAS) and the US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom remain vacant. The Trump Administration has offered loose assurances that the post of SEAS and other related roles will be filled, but has yet to give an estimated date for the appointments.
Initially created in 2004 by President George W. Bush as part of his Global Anti-Semitism review, the envoy is tasked with documenting Anti-Semitism across the globe as well as building relationships with Jewish communities in foreign nations. The envoy also provides input into the State Department’s annual report on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom.
Coupled with this, the vacant Office of International Religious Freedom has a broad mandate to promote religious freedom within US foreign policy. This includes stated aims to:
- Promote freedom of religion and conscience throughout the world as a fundamental human right and as a source of stability for all countries;
- Assist emerging democracies in implementing freedom of religion and conscience;
- Assist religious and human rights NGOs in promoting religious freedom;
- Identify and denounce regimes that are severe persecutors on the basis of religious belief.
These missing appointments are conspicuous in their absence at a time when questions of religious freedom and persecution are taking centre stage in US policy forums. Just two weeks ago, the University of Notre Dame’s centre for Ethics and Culture held a large symposium on religious persecution worldwide. A letter penned by the Wilberforce Initiative, signed by over 700 religious leaders and activists, further called for the President to fill the vacant positions. In addition, the Religious Freedom Institute’s report on ‘US Foreign Policy and International Religious Freedom’ concluded that:
Despite increased attention to religion in U.S. foreign policy in recent years, global levels of religious persecution, violent religious extremism, and religion-related conflict remain dangerously high. U.S. International Religious Freedom (IRF) policy could be far more effective in addressing these threats to minorities, to regional stability, and to American national security. The Trump administration and Congress have an extraordinary opportunity, at low cost, to forge a successful U.S. IRF policy.
The need for urgency is self-evident. The Pew Research Centre has determined that 74 per cent of the world’s population live within nations with high or very high restriction – or even hostility – to religion. This leads not only to harrowing scenes of persecution but also mass violence, terrorist recruitment, economic instability and civil unrest. In the case of anti-semitism, this cancer having been left to fester continues to manifests itself as a very real geopolitical crisis, with an entire nation-state being threatened with extinction by hostile forces.
Yet despite being subjected to repeated threats and aggression, the tenacious nation-state of Israel has flourished into a vibrant democracy as well as a technological and scientific powerhouse. David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, has highlighted how miraculous it is that the small nation in the Levant has managed to survive to 69 years of existence:
When one adds the key element, namely, that all this took place not in the Middle West but in the Middle East, where Israel’s neighbours determined from day one to destroy it through any means available to them — from full-scale wars to wars of attrition; from diplomatic isolation to international delegitimation; from primary to secondary to even tertiary economic boycotts; from terrorism to the spread of anti-Semitism, often thinly veiled as anti-Zionism — the story of Israel’s first 69 years becomes all the more remarkable.
From 4-6 June Washington DC will host the AJC Global Forum. The world’s largest Jewish conference, attended by global leaders, religious figures and citizens from over seventy nations. It would be a clear statement of intent from the White House to have their newly nominated Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at that conference. On several occasions, President Trump has spoken of his concern for the unchecked advance of religious persecution abroad. The President should act swiftly, appoint his envoy to combat anti-semitism, appoint his Ambassador for International Religious Freedom and set out his vision of how these two roles will be meaningfully incorporated into US Foreign Policy.