On Monday, the State Department issued its annual religious freedom report. The results were sobering: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory,” the report said. “In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs.”
The State Department added Turkmenistan to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” which includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan, as states which routinely violate religious freedoms. At a press conference on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry also cited anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe and a 2013 poll that revealed that anti-Semitism had led about half the Jews in some European countries to consider emigrating as among the worldwide symptoms of religious intolerance.
The report’s release came hours after President Obama announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, filling a position that has been vacant since October. Rabbi Saperstein, who was a longtime head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and was instrumental in the 1993 passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is highly qualified for the position, which involves monitoring and promoting religious freedom around the world.
As ambassador for religious freedom, Rabbi Saperstein will have his work cut out for him. In addition to the obvious need to address religious persecution around the world, the new ambassador will have to work hard to convince the U.S. government to put teeth and money behind its support for international religious freedom.
If confirmed, Saperstein would be the first non-Christian in the position, which was created in 1998. That historic accomplishment will be reason for communal pride, even as we note that service by Jews in the top levels of government is no longer an anomaly. Indeed, Rabbi Saperstein is more likely to draw scrutiny for his liberal politics than for being a Jew.
Because of Rabbi Saperstein’s sensitivity to religious freedom, his advocacy for religious rights and his credibility as a man of religious faith, we urge the Senate to confirm him quickly.