The advocate

Why religious liberty ambassador and Obama appointee David Saperstein is earning praise from both Republicans and Democrats

From WORLD Magazine. By J.C. Derrick. October 1, 2016.

WASHINGTON—In July 2014, President Barack Obama announced his nominee to fill a vacant State Department post—one that had sat empty for eight months yet had enormous implications for religious minorities around the world.

The job: ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The nominee: David Saperstein, a Washington activist and Reform Jew whom Newsweek in 2009 named the most influential rabbi in America.

Today, after more than a year and a half on the job, Saperstein is earning praise from across the political spectrum. At a time when violence against religious minorities has proliferated around the globe, Saperstein has shown himself diligent in confronting religious persecution and rebuilding the Office for International Religious Freedom into a potent advocacy force. Religious freedom advocates see his work as essential to human rights and national security, and even some conservatives are calling for him to retain his cabinet position regardless of who wins the presidency in November.

“He’s the best,” said former Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, who left Congress in 2014 to work full time on international religious freedom issues. “If Republicans take over the White House, I would advocate that they keep him.”

“David Saperstein has helped to legitimize religious freedom as a foreign policy issue within the Department of State,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University.

Under Saperstein, the IRF office has now expanded to 23 full-time staff—a record high—plus interns and seasonal contractors. Knox Thames, the first special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, is one of those new faces. In combination with the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, Saperstein says, there are now about 50 people who work on religious issues every day: “My guess would be that’s more than the entire world governments put together.”

But Saperstein’s most notable legacy may be something for which he doesn’t take credit. In March, word spread among the international religious freedom community that the State Department was poised to recognize ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria against the minority Yazidi population. They were stunned when, on March 17, Kerry declared genocide against not just Yazidis but Christians as well.

Saperstein says he was only part of the team that helped compile the genocide case, but outside advocates believe it wouldn’t have happened without his vocal influence. The week after the declaration, when Saperstein slipped in to the back of a meeting of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable on Capitol Hill, participants thanked him and gave a hearty round of applause.

Despite his strong record on international religious freedom issues, Saperstein’s nomination sparked some controversy. Social conservatives on and off Capitol Hill cited his criticism of the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned company that fought successfully not to provide abortifacient drugs to its employees.

But individuals and groups most engaged on international religious freedom came to Saperstein’s defense during the nomination process, noting his long track record and the post’s lack of a domestic mandate. More than 70 signatories of the IRF Roundtable—a diverse coalition ranging from Open Doors USA to the American Humanist Association—sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to support Saperstein.

COLLABORATION IS ONE OF SAPERSTEIN’S STRENGTHS. Colleagues and advocates say he works tirelessly and is both aggressive and personable: Handshakes and hugs accompany his ready smiles and easy conversation. In addition to working with the IRF Roundtable, he’s forged a closer partnership with USCIRF—a relationship that has frayed at times in the past.

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