Lankford upset over inaction on religious liberty

The U.S. State Department ignored last year’s congressional request to appoint a special envoy for religious liberty in the Middle East and Asia, creating a lower-ranking advisory position instead.  In a letter sent to the department, Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, called on Secretary of State John Kerry to explain the discrepancy.

Lankford questioned the administration’s commitment to international religious freedom and why it did not follow the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act. The bill created a special envoy for persecuted minorities, and Congress passed it without objection from either party.

President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law in August 2014, but the position remained vacant until last month. Rather than appoint a special envoy, which would typically report directly to the secretary of state, the administration created a “special advisor” position that will report to David Saperstein, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

“Within the State Department, there are special envoys for climate change, the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, to promote the rights of LGBT persons, and to promote Islamic cooperation,” Lankford wrote. “The administration has been clear that all of these issues are top priorities and the designation of special envoy reflects that.”

The administration quietly announced the appointment last month in a low-key rollout that included a tweet from Saperstein. The White House announced the new position as part of a long press release ahead of the pope’s September visit, but the release did not name the appointee, Knox Thames.

The international religious freedom community lauded the appointment of Thames, who previously worked for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Helsinki Commission, and State’s Office of International Religious Freedom under former Ambassador-at-Large John Hanford.

Hanford told me Thames is well-qualified “in experience, in sound judgment, and in his passion for the cause of religious freedom,” but “it’s inexplicable why the position was downgraded” from the congressional recommendation.

Lankford also drew attention to Saperstein’s downgraded position. The ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom was ranked among the top 10 diplomats at the State Department when Congress created the post in a 1998 law signed by President Bill Clinton. Now it’s equal to a special envoy—the level at which Thames should be.

“The administration has taken the position that ‘promoting and protecting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy,’ yet the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom is buried in layers of bureaucracy rather than reporting directly to you like the ambassadors-at-large for the Office of Global Women’s Issues and the Office of Global AIDS Coordinator,” Lankford wrote. “If it is a priority, it must be treated as such in terms of the position within the State Department.”