Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas (R) on Wednesday was nominated by President Donald Trump to be the next Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Dr. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, hailed the choice as “excellent.” Farr explained that “because of his experience,” Brownback “fully meets the two qualifications critical for this position: first, a vigorous understanding of the meaning and value of religious freedom for all, and the ability to communicate that understanding, both as a universal moral value and as a political institution that can serve the interests of every society.”
The religious freedom ambassador position was created through the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. That law established the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department, which is tasked with “promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy,” as the office states. The ambassador is charged with monitoring religious freedom abuses worldwide, meeting with religious leaders around the globe, and discussing with foreign governments how they could better respect the freedom of religious minorities to practice their faith publicly without harassment or state action.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the previous ambassador, served during the second term of the Obama administration and was a “model” for the position, former congressman Frank Wolf told CNA recently. Most notably on his watch, the State Department declared that genocide was taking place against Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’a Muslims in Syria and Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State.
The position is vital, religious freedom advocates say, because countries where freedom of religion is respected also see fewer acts of terror and extremism, and enjoy stronger civil and human rights than other countries where religious freedom is not respected. Now Brownback will look to continue progress made within the State Department in this area. The agency has historically not viewed promoting religious freedom as a priority in U.S. foreign relations, although according to Saperstein the office has made strides in the last two years particularly in advocating for prisoners of conscience.
Brownback “has the experience, gravitas, and bureaucratic skill to sell this understanding” of the importance of religious freedom, Dr. Farr said, “and to build a successful policy, within a resistant bureaucracy at the Department of State and a largely indifferent political class.”
Other religious freedom advocates applauded the selection of Brownback for the position. Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, said that Brownback’s record on defending religious freedom during his time in the Senate proves his qualification. “As a U.S. Senator, Brownback was a passionate defender of the rights of all people to worship freely, and courageously confronted offenses against human dignity in trouble spots such as North Korea, Iraq, China, Sudan, Vietnam, and Egypt,” Ferguson said. His nomination comes at a crucial time, she said, “given the global instability caused by the severe religious persecution that 77 percent of the world’s population live under.”
Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2002, after years of being a mainline Protestant and then an evangelical. Before serving as Governor of Kansas, Brownback was a U.S. senator from 1996 until 2010. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When he retired from the Senate in 2010, Brownback was hailed in the chamber as someone “known around the world as a champion of religious freedom.”
The senator introduced resolutions or bills defending human rights abroad and shaming human rights abusers. In 2010, he introduced a measure “condemning the Government of Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities” and calling for the release of the “Baha’i Seven,” seven Baha’i leaders held captive by the state for their religious beliefs.
In 2008, Brownback introduced a resolution calling for a Jewish cemetery in Lithuania to be protected against planned construction projects, and insisted that it “should not be further desecrated.” He also introduced a resolution that year welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the United States and honoring “the unique insights his moral and spiritual reflections bring to the world stage.”
Brownback spoke out against persecution of religious minorities in Russia in a 2005 resolution that called on “the government of the Russian Federation to ensure full protection of freedoms for all religious communities and end the harassment of unregistered religious groups.”
He also called for a “National Weekend of Prayer and Reflection for the people of Darfur, Sudan” in July of 2005, a year after the U.S. declared genocide was taking place there at the hands of the government and militia groups. Brownback introduced a concurrent resolution in the Senate declaring that genocide was taking place there.
Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), who wrote the administration in April asking them to nominate an international religious freedom ambassador, emphasized the importance of the ambassador position. “As anti-religious freedom regimes expand around the world, the United States should clearly speak out for human rights, including religious liberty,” he stated on Wednesday.