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As Mosul’s Christians Flee, Religious Freedom Gets an Ambassador

The State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom paints a dark picture for religious liberty advocates. The AP says that “Millions of people were forced from their homes because of their religious beliefs last year,” referring to the IRF report’s summary of “the devastating impact of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic.”

The IRF report itself opens by saying that, in 2013, “the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. … Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.”

In Mosul, the crisis of Iraqi Christians has reached fever pitch: a fourth-century monastery was recently taken by force. The tomb traditionally held to be the resting place of Jonah was destroyed by insurgents. The Iraqi government has denounced the rebels’ actions, but done little to stop them. An AP report sheds light on the havoc:

Residents in Mosul also say the Islamic State group’s fighters recently have begun to occupy churches and seize the homes of Christians who have fled the city. … Already in Mosul, the extremist group has banned alcohol and water pipes, and painted over street advertisements showing women’s faces. It has, however, held off on stricter punishments so far.

The State Department report was released on Monday, serving to illustrate a known trend of international religious chaos and neatly coinciding with President Obama’s announcement of David Saperstein’s appointment as Ambassador-at-Large of International Religious Freedom for the U.S.

The appointment has been a long time coming. Obama, criticized by some for dawdling, has allowed the post to remain vacant since Suzan Johnson Cook, Saperstein’s predecessor, vacated the post in October 2013.

Mark Silk writes at Religion News Service that Saperstein is highly qualified for the position:

Saperstein’s religious liberty bona fides is without peer. Two decades ago, he put together the coalition responsible for gaining all but unanimous passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the law that has recently become the darling of religious conservatives. In 1999, he was unanimously elected by his fellow commissioners to serve as the first chair of the USCIRF. He served on the first advisory council to Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and was a member of the task force to reform the office. No representative of a religious organization in Washington comes close to matching his credibility across the political spectrum.

His appointment comes at a time when religious strife is prominent at home and abroad. Saperstein has been tasked with what is arguably one of the most complex and difficult political missions of the moment. He faces extraordinarily violent international religious conflict, in addition to the prospect of political resistance at home. And given the trajectory of the world, things look likely to only get worse before they get better.


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