As State Department reorganizes, what will be the fate of religious freedom office?

By Matt Hadro

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The White House. Credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock.

Although the State Department plans to cut or consolidate certain senior positions as part of an ongoing reorganization, the international religious freedom office will reportedly be expanded.“I am encouraged by this move,” Dr. Tom Farr, head of the Religious Freedom Institute, told EWTN News in a written statement on the agency moving religious “special envoy” positions into the Office of International Religious Freedom.

“Each of these religion-related envoys and offices are intimately connected to religious freedom,” he said.

“I believe that the Department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus,” Tillerson wrote in a letter to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, “and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose.” CNN first reported the letter.

Of 66 senior positions at the department which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussed in his letter, 30 are planned to be kept in place, according to a department official. Nine will be cut, 21 will be consolidated into various bureaus within the agency, and five others will be “folded into existing positions.”

The moves are being made to consolidate positions within the agency in the name of efficiency, clarity, and concentration of resources, according to an official at State.

Certain senior religious positions at State – including their staff and functions -- are now being assumed by the Office of International Religious Freedom, all of which will reportedly be expanded.

That office was created with the original International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), sponsored by former Congressman Frank Wolf. It was meant to establish a place at the State Department where promoting religious freedom would be a lasting part of U.S. foreign policy.

Daniel Mark, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan federal commission that advises the State Department and promotes religious freedom abroad, did not take an official position on the re-organization.

However, he said that if it improved the effectiveness of the State Department’s mission of promoting religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy, then it obviously would be a sound move.

“For coordination purposes, it is helpful, we think, for the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom to be taking the lead and coordinating the activities of all those different groups and offices,” he said of the re-organization.

“The goal isn’t to have this many envoys or that many envoys. The goal, of course, is just to see all the issues that need to be addressed, addressed in an efficacious way.”

The end results may depend on how much of a voice the Office of International Religious Freedom is given within the State Department.

Some advocates have thought that the office was marginalized at the agency over the years, both in its physical presence within the building and in its diminished role in the hierarchy of offices.

However, the previous Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, David Saperstein, who served during the last two years of the Obama administration, played an important role in increasing the voice of the office within the agency, Wolf said.

President Donald Trump nominated Kansas Governor and former Senator Sam Brownback for the position in July. He has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

And in the new State Department plan, the ambassador will report to “a higher-level official,” Mark told CNA.

The ambassador will now report to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, a change which is “a step in the right direction” and one which will hopefully gain the office a more prominent voice within the agency, Mark said.

However, “we would look to see it be elevated even further,” he said, “to be a direct report, involved in the senior-level staff meetings and that sort of thing.”

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which is the most recent version of IRFA, passed by Congress in 2016, calls for the ambassador to report directly to the Secretary of State.

And now the office will absorb other religious positions within State: the U.S. Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, the U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference, and Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia.

And by keeping the envoys and placing them within the International Religious Freedom office, State will be able to bring their expertise to the office’s mission of promoting religious freedom.

“For example, the Muslim-related envoys will strengthen the US capacity to advance religious freedom in Muslim-majority nations by, for example, presenting evidence that moving toward religious freedom will benefit Islam and their societies,” Dr. Farr said.

One of the positions – the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia – has been hailed by advocates for Middle Eastern Christians as vital to the mission of protecting them.

Knox Thames is the current Special Advisor, but a State Department official could not provide information as to whether specific staff members would remain in positions. Wolf praised Thames’ work as Special Advisor.

The Special Advisor position was created through bills passed by the House in 2013 and by the Senate in 2014 as a way to ensure that an advocate for persecuted religious minorities in the region would exist at State as part of a “one-stop special place” for leaders of those communities to share their concerns and requests.

Initially a “Special Envoy” position, it was changed to be a “Special Adviser” role under the Obama administration. The position is extremely important, Wolf told EWTN News, because of the dire plight of many religious minorities in the region.

These persecuted communities, he said, would include Coptic Christians suffering deadly terror attacks in Egypt, Iraqi Christian refugees, and Yazidis who suffered genocide at the hands of Islamic State, Baha'is imprisoned in Iran, and Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan.

“You can’t pick up the paper, and there’s not a story about persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East,” Wolf said. “You can’t get rid of the person who’s working on that issue at this very time. It would send a terrible message to the persecuted people in the Middle East.”

Not only must the position exist, he said, but the right person must fill it.

“Personnel is policy,” Wolf said. “You put the right person in, and things are going to happen. You put the wrong person in, and you can have nothing happen.”

The Special Envoy for anti-Semitism will reportedly be kept, but moved to the Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor. The Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan will be cut, with its functions and staff being transferred to the Bureau of African Affairs.

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