Promoting religious freedom abroad is vital for U.S. national security interests in preventing the rise of threats such as ISIS, said the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Monday. “Many of our most dire national security threats are founded and have their origins in countries, in regions, societies, that fail to provide this most fundamental human protection,” Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett told CNA on Oct. 27, International Religious Freedom Day. The day marked the 16th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The commission, created by the act, is an independent, bi-partisan advisory group that monitors religious freedom around the world and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State and Congress. With “a world in flames,” it is imperative now more than ever for the U.S. to “encourage and nudge and push allies and adversaries alike” to promote religious freedom, Dr. Swett emphasized. “If you take a look at where our greatest national security threats derive from, nine times out of ten you’ll also find a place that does a terrible job protecting religious freedom for its citizens,” she argued. “All we have to do is look around the Middle East with what’s going on with ISIS to recognize that when society fails to secure this fundamental human right of freedom of conscience and belief for all their citizens, it can give rise to extremism, which can breed violence and terror of the sort that we’re seeing in too many regions of the world.” On the contrary, societies that protect religious freedom “are more tolerant, more peaceful. Interestingly, they are more economically successful and vibrant,” she said, citing social science evidence. In its foreign policy, the U.S. should make religious freedom a priority at every level of government, Dr. Swett insisted — in Congress, the State Department, and the White House. “We benefit greatly from having top leadership at every level, not only making sure religious freedom has a seat at the table when our foreign policy is being hammered out and being discussed and being debated, but also it would benefit it greatly to have our top leadership, from the President and the Vice President and Secretary Kerry and our top leadership in Congress, putting this at the top of their agenda in their dealings with foreign leaders, in their travels abroad.” Dr. Swett made two other recommendations — Congress must re-authorize the International Religious Freedom Act and the Senate should approve the Obama administration’s nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein to be the Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The ambassador position has been vacant for the majority of President Obama’s time in office. It was empty from the time that Obama took office at the start of 2009 until June 15, 2010, when the President tapped Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook for the job. She was not approved by the Senate until April 2011. After Dr. Cook resigned the position in October 2013, the administration did not nominate a candidate until July 28, 2014, when Rabbi David Saperstein was named for the position. The Senate has yet to confirm him. Rabbi Saperstein’s nomination has received a mixed response. His record on promoting religious freedom abroad received applause from some at the time of his nomination. However, critics worried that his record on domestic religious freedom, namely his opposition to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, would bleed into his international work.
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