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Q&A: Religious freedom ambassador reflects on work, looks toward future

David Saperstein, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, has to be patient. Progress is slow in his line of work, but it's worth the wait.

Take Vietnam. For nearly 18 months, Saperstein has been tracking the progress of the country's first broad religious freedom bill. The vote was scheduled for Nov. 17 and then pushed back a day, postponing the relief and rejoicing that will come if it's passed.

International religious freedom work is a long game, but every small victory makes a big difference, Saperstein told an audience of scholars and students at Brigham Young University laston Thursday night.

"You can't change a law overnight, but where you can, millions of lives are going to be changed," he said.

David N. Saperstein, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, speaks with a reporter at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City on Nov. 17, 2016. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Since he was sworn in on Jan. 6, 2015, Saperstein has lived out his passion for religious freedom on a global scale, traveling the world to meet with state leaders, minority faith communities and fellow freedom advocates. He's overseen the expansion of his office's role in foreign policy efforts and continued the work of researching and compiling religious freedom violations in the State Department's annual International Religious Freedom Report.

His current assignment is not his first experience monitoring religious freedom around the globe. He was the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which was established by Congress, along with the State Department's ambassador-at-large position, in 1998. He's also been involved in domestic religious freedom policy, helping pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and serving on the inaugural advisory council of President Obama's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

In addition to his government service, Saperstein is an ordained Jewish rabbi and recognized leader in the Jewish community. He headed up the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 40 years before accepting his current appointment.

Before his lecture at BYU, Saperstein spoke with the Deseret News about America's commitment to religious communities around the world and what to expect from the Trump administration. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: How does international religious freedom work differ from ongoing domestic debates over religious liberty?

David Saperstein: We have very serious issues of religious freedom here in our own country, such as the emerging difficult question of how we balance out religious freedom claims and civil rights claims of other protected categories. If you cannot fully accommodate both, how should compromises be made?

This is an issue that has roiled through our courts, that has led to tensions between religious communities and other protected communities in American life, so I take it very, very seriously.

But I'm dealing with problems across the globe that deal with people being put in jail and sentenced to death because of blasphemy laws. Whole groups who are being ethnically cleansed because Daesh or other non-state actors don't like the way that they worship and don't want them in the areas that they control.

I'm seeing people being taken captive and forced to convert and forced to marry, being raped and tortured because of their religious beliefs, simply because they want to worship God in their own way or they want to be able to say freely that they don't believe in God.

Those are problems that require the world community, including the United States, to address them with intense urgency. These are matters of life and death: the survival of whole communities, the plight of prisoners of conscience.

I'm extraordinarily proud that the United States plays such a large and effective role in mobilizing the international community on these issues.

DN: Should international religious freedom issues get more attention within the U.S.?

DS: I think, rightfully, when issues arise in our own country — think of Black Lives Matter and the tensions between police and communities of color in too many cities, think of the other great challenges that we face in this country — we're right to focus on them.

But we shouldn't lose sight of the international obligations that we have. We gave to the world a vision of fundamental rights, that in the individual, not given to us by the state, there are rights that come from being a God-created human being.

We gave to the world that notion and in our Constitution we address religion. No religious test for office. Free exercise of religion. No government establishment of religion. In other words, the government has to remain neutral on religion and let religion flourish.

We conveyed to the world a revolutionary idea about the individual and the state in terms of religion. We asserted the belief that your rights as a citizen should not depend upon your religious identity, your religious beliefs, your religious practices.

And like many of our promised rights, it took us a long time to actualize them. But in the mid-20th century we did, and that was exactly the time that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (were written.) Many of the ideas that had begun in America were now being conveyed all across the globe.

We fight for those rights, those human rights, including religious freedom, every day.

DN: Beyond rising anti-Islamic sentiment, we've seen an increase in anti-Semitic violence around the globe in recent years. Is anti-Semitism particularly significant for you because of your longtime leadership in the Jewish community?

DS: For somebody who is Jewish and part of a people who have been among the quintessential victims of religious persecution and discrimination over millennia, there's always been a sense of an obligation to speak up when we see others facing discrimination, persecution and repression.

We know what happens when good people stand by silently in the face of religious persecution, and I'm proud that so many in the Jewish community have stood up against Christian persecution across the globe, for Mormon rights, for Muslim rights.

Religious freedom is a universal right. If any group can be targeted because of their religious identity and practices, no group is going to be safe in the end.

It is at the core of our work on religious freedom at the State Department to assert this universal right. We make progress in some areas and in other areas there are daunting challenges.

Studies tell us that three-quarters of the world's population live in countries with significant restrictions on religious freedom or social hostilities because the majority population is intolerant and often acts violently against minority religious populations. There's a lot of work to be done, and country by country we do make improvements.

We can make more improvements, and every time we do, the lives of large numbers of people are made a little bit better.

DN: New data from the FBI shows that religiously motivated hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S. What can everyday people do to build more peaceful communities?

DS: Hate crimes are not just crimes against the individuals who are targeted. Hate crimes are crimes against America. They're crimes against the values and the ideals and vision of America. They're aimed not just at hurting an individual person, but tearing a country apart along sectarian or racial or ethnic or cultural differences.

When we stand against hate crimes, we're really standing for the most essential values of America.

I'm proud of the fact that when there have been hate crimes against Jews in the United States, unlike in many other countries, all kinds of other religious groups stand up and protest and help clean up a synagogue that's been defaced, just as they stand up for the right for mosques to be built.

Standing up against hate crimes is one important step. So is building interfaith coalitions. There are more interfaith coalitions around the world today than at any time in human history. It's a new idea, this idea of interfaith cooperation.

When we build interfaith coalitions to help address many problems, not just religious freedom problems or human rights problems, not only are we more effective than any one group could be alone, but we model the kind of society that we hope to create.

There's a line in the Jewish tradition that says, "You and I together, we can change the world." Every time good people come together, we can move anything that is an obstacle to justice and freedom and peace.

DN: President-electPresident-elect Trump and President Obama clashed this summer over whether to use the term "radical Islam" to describe terrorism. Can you help me understand why the labels we use matter?matter?

DS: This is a debate that is more of a theoretical debate than an actual debate. I understand the desire of those who don't want to use terminology that in any way could be heard to convey that an entire religion, an entire people, are terrorists, evil and radical. And I understand those who say there may be Buddhists who are terrorists, there may be Hindus who are terrorists, there may be Christians who are terrorists, and we're talking about Muslims who are terrorists in significant numbers. Why can't we call it what it is?

And I say to anyone who's been critical of President Obama for not using the word Muslim extremists, "what do you mean by that?" They'll usually say, "Well those are individuals who are of a particular faith who use that faith to justify what they're doing."

Those words, what they say they mean, are the exact words that President Obama uses. Both sides are saying exactly the same thing here.

In the end, I think we all know the challenges that we face in every religion to avoid extremists who use their religion to say they have a right to use force to impose their views on those who disagree with them in their own faith community and in other faith communities. That's what we're all opposed to and that's what we should be naming and that's what we should be working together to delegitimize, isolate and weaken.

DN: Speaking of labels, you supported calling the actions of ISIS (also referred to as ISIL or Daesh) in the Middle East "genocide." Why were you in favor of this designation?

DS: I was part of the process that led to the Secretary (of State John Kerry's) finding of a genocide. At his instruction, we completed a Herculean task of compiling data and information from sources all across the globe to present to him. Having reviewed all of those, he made the finding that this was genocide.

That's important. Genocide has become a crime within human history that has been designated as a separate crime because of the inherent evil of trying to eliminate an entire people over and above all of the cumulative individual suffering that happens.

It was important to name it for what it was. Daesh was engaged in genocide of the Yazidi community, the Christian community and the Shia community in Iraq. The secretary also pointed out actions against many of other, smaller faith communities, which constituted ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

How did that change things? To some extent, it mobilized the world's attention. It allowed the State Department to pull together an extraordinary conference a couple of months ago, which led to another $2 billion of pledges to invest in helping to rebuild the areas that have been so devastated by Daesh.

Congress also urged the president to create a special office to focus on those religious minorities. It's now part of my office.

DN: Do you have any insights into how the Trump administration will approach religious freedom?

DS: Religious freedom is one of those areas that has enjoyed enormous bipartisan support. In the 22 months that I've been honored to hold this position, the size of my office has nearly doubled and our program money has increased five-fold to $20 million with the support of a bipartisan coalition and a secretary of state who really cares about religious freedom.

There are 50 full-time people working day in and day out in the U.S. State Department on behalf of religious freedom and focused on religious communities. That is because this is such a bipartisan issue. That's not going to go anyway, no matter who the president is.

I remain quite confident that under President Trump religious freedom will remain a vibrant and robust presence in our foreign policy.

DN: Do you plan to continue in your role if you're asked?

DS: I'd be honored to work on this issue under any administration that's committed to religious freedom. A lot will depend on clarifications made by the administration and whoever their new secretary of state is. Are they going to continue the strong emphasis that religious freedom has had?

We'll wait to see whether or not they honor me with the request to stay on and whether or not I feel, at the time the decision has to be made, that I can do something constructive and helpful.

DN: What are you most proud of over these last 22 months?

DS: A number of things. Being part of the process that led to the genocide determination and playing a key role in the work that will lead to religious minorities being able to return to their homes in Iraq when ISIL is pushed out.

The fact that we have successfully integrated religion issues and religious freedom into the broader State Department's work.

The efforts we've made to see religious prisoners of conscience, such as the pastors I talked about in Sudan, released.

The fact that we've played a role in putting together international coalitions on religious freedom and an international contact group of 30 countries committed to working together on behalf of religious freedom.

And improvements in countries like Vietnam, where, as we are talking, leaders should be voting on the first omnibus religious freedom law in the history of the country. If that is the bill that is passed, although there will still be work to do, I think it will be a major breakthrough and a signal for other countries that they too can ease similar kinds of restrictions.