Baptists join praise for religious freedom ambassador nominee

David Saperstein, new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, at the World Economic Forum in 2013 (RNS / Creative Commons Image)

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Baptists joined other American religious leaders in praising President Barack Obama’s selection of a rabbi and law professor to lead the U.S. State Department’s anti-religious-discrimination efforts around the world.

Obama announced his nomination of Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

david saperstein281Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, preaches at a Washington, D.C., service in 2002. (RNS Image)“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” Obama said.

The selection, which requires Senate confirmation, comes during an era the White House and State Department described as one of the most tumultuous and repressive for people of faith around the globe.

If confirmed, Saperstein would be the fourth person—and the first non-Christian—to hold the position responsible for monitoring and countering religious discrimination and persecution.

Statements from religious leaders quickly followed the president’s announcement.

“Rabbi Saperstein brings theological training and legal expertise, valuable experience serving on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a passion for religious liberty both in the United States and around the world,” said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“The United States’ commitment to the cause of international religious liberty will be in good hands under Rabbi Saperstein’s tutelage.”

Saperstein is director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He teaches First Amendment church-state law and Jewish law as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Among his numerous board appointments are the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

Praise from religious leaders

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission praised Obama’s selection and promised to cooperate with Saperstein.

“I applaud President Obama for making a nomination to … a position that plays a key role in our nation’s responsibility to act on behalf of the persecuted around the world,” ERLC President Russell Moore said.

Moore lauded Saperstein as “a respected thinker and leader who brings gravity to this important task.”

Moore had written Obama earlier recommending the president consider appointing U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf to the position. He described the Republican from Virginia as “a tireless and unparalleled advocate for persecuted religious minorities.”

But in his statement after the announced nomination, Moore promised Saperstein his full support and prayers. “The downgrade of religious freedom and persecution of religious minorities around the world must end,” he said.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter also praised the nomination.

“Rabbi Saperstein has been a colleague and leader for many causes and cases that have shaped the face of religious expression, religious liberty and constitutional direction,” Paynter said. “I look forward to his leadership in this new position.”

Religious Freedom Report released

In conjunction with the announcement about Saperstein, the State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2013. The document demonstrates Saperstein will have his work cut out for him.

“In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs,” the document states. It goes on to detail instances of violence and persecution by religious groups and governments against other faiths from North Korea to Eritrea to Syria.

Saperstein is the ideal pick to counter those disturbing trends, said Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners.

“As a friend and fellow advocate for justice, I know he brings the courage, dedication and passion for protecting religious freedom that is necessary for success in this role,” Wallis said in a news release.

Wallis also urged the Senate to act quickly to confirm Saperstein “so that he can begin the work that is vital to our nation’s foreign policy and the good of the global community.”

If confirmed, Saperstein will follow Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist minister, who stepped down in October.

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