David N. Saperstein departed his position this month as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State. On the last day of his tenure, January 10, he moderated the first live Facebook conversation by the Office of International Religious Freedom.
Appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in December 2014, he has served, as mandated by law, as principal adviser to the President and Secretary of State and chief diplomat on religious freedom issues around the world. He also headed the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
A rabbi and attorney, Mr. Saperstein has served religious liberty advocacy in numerous capacities throughout his career, including Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) for several decades; first chair, in 1999, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; member of the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in 2009; member of the Religion and Foreign Policy working group of the State Department’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society initiative, 2011–14; head of the Coalition to Protect Religious Liberty; chair of the NAACP Religious Affairs Committee; and seminar leader in First Amendment Church-State Law at Georgetown University.
Opening the live Facebook discussion, Ambassador Saperstein acknowledged the concurrent Religious Freedom Day and birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on January 16, and framing the online conversation with these words:
We are going to be discussing religious freedom and religious liberty. For the United States, it is a foundational idea—this idea that freedom of conscience, the rights that adhere in every human being as a human being, includes that pivotal right of belief and the ability to live in accordance with their conscience including in their religious practice. In our Bill of Rights it is the first freedom listed…
And this idea led to a political understanding—for the first time in human history—that one’s rights as a citizen would be equal to all other citizens without regard to one’s religious identity, practices or belief.
Now these ideas of the foundational concept of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, the equality of all people under the law no matter what their religious identify or beliefs—these also animated the drafting and the formation of the international order of human rights. It is reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. These ideas are clearly stated as a fundamental right of every human being, every citizen, everywhere in the world, in every country.
And we are here today to talk about that with three very remarkable advocates on behalf of religious freedom.
The participants in the discussion:
- Ms. Aisa Rahman, executive director of Karamah, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting human rights globally, especially gender equity, religious freedom and civil rights in the United States, pursuing its mission through education, legal outreach and advocacy.
- Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, formerly of the Islamic Society of North America, now of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, an organization formed in 2013 to strengthen peacemaking through collaboratively supporting the positive role of religious and traditional actors in peace and peacebuilding processes.
- Mr. Isaac Six of International Christian Concern, a nonpartisan, nondenominational organization dedicated to assisting Christians and other religious minorities worldwide who are victims of religious persecution.
The half-hour discussion is available in full on the Facebook page of the Department of State—Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.