Administration takes heat for downgrading religious freedom post

The Obama administration is facing new questions on Capitol Hill over its commitment to religious freedom posts, after the State Department -- in defiance of Congress -- appeared to downgrade a diplomatic position created to help persecuted minorities.

The Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, passed on a bipartisan vote last year, authorized the creation of a "special envoy" to advocate for the protection of at-risk religious minorities in the region. It came amid mounting reports of ISIS terrorists beheading Christians and religious minorities being abused throughout the Middle East.

But the appointment was delayed more than a year. And when Secretary of State John Kerry finally and quietly named Knox Thames to the post, the title was changed to "special adviser."

The distinction matters because special envoys would report to Kerry, while Thames' "adviser" position reports to the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein.

"The administration said that persecution of religious minorities was a priority, but they waited over a year to pick a person to fill the role of special envoy and when they finally selected someone, they appointed them to a much lower position that limits the engagement with the secretary," Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in an interview with

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    "If the promotion of religious freedom is a priority, it must be treated as such in terms of the position within the State Department," he added.

    Within the U.S. State Department, there already are 49 special envoys appointed to address a range of "key foreign policy objectives," including climate change, the closure of Guantanamo Bay, protecting LGBT rights and fostering Muslim cooperation.

    Why Thames, who previously worked at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was not also installed as a special envoy is unclear.

    The State Department did not return a request for comment.

    Concerned about the level of commitment to international religious freedom, Lankford last month sent a letter to Kerry asking him to explain why bipartisan calls for a special envoy were ignored. To date, no response has been received.

    The decision not to appoint a special envoy may have implications that are more than symbolic.

    "The practical implication is that [Thames] does not have the ear of the secretary of state or the president. Instead of having a direct line to Kerry or the president, the position is lost in the bureaucracy, which limits any ability he has to respond to emergency situations in the Middle East -- an area where it is becoming clear that you are seeing genocide occurring," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

    Shea says not having the authority and prominence afforded by the special envoy designation makes it difficult to trigger a higher-level response to critical issues, including ongoing discrimination against Syrian Christians seeking refugee status in the U.S.

    Shea worked with Thames when both were at the USCIRF, which was created to monitor religious freedom violations globally and make policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress.

    According to Shea, in the five years since the beginning of the war in Syria, only 53 Syrian Christian refugees, or 2.6 percent of a total 2,003 Syrian refugees, have been allowed to enter the U.S.

    Lankford also is seeking an explanation for why even Saperstein's position "is buried in layers of bureaucracy" and he does not report directly to the secretary like other ambassadors-at-large.

    In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October, Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, likewise urged the administration to furnish Saperstein's office with "resources and staff similar to other offices with global mandates, as well as with increased programmatic funds for religious freedom promotion and protection."

    In addition to bucking Congress on the special envoy appointment, Lankford says, the administration did not include Saperstein in negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, as required after the Senate unanimously approved an amendment stipulating religious freedom be taken into account whenever trade pacts are negotiated.

    Further, USCIRF's George called on the Obama administration to use authority granted to the president by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act to designate countries that have "engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom" as "countries of particular concern," or CPCs.

    The State Department has declined to consider Syria for a CPC designation, as has been repeatedly recommended by the independent USCIRF.