Christian groups, a US government panel and former senior US diplomats are taking Secretary of State Antony Blinken to task over his recent decision to take Nigeria off a list of countries accused of engaging in or tolerating religious persecution. Nigeria’s removal from the list is being seen in some circles as a political decision, at odds withthe State Department’s stated goal of placing human rights at the center of its diplomatic policies.
Blinken’s decision was revealed last week just before he visited Nigeria, where Muslim-Christian tensions repeatedly have led to violence. His department refused to explain its decision or give a full timeline for it, except to say that various department sections within State advised that Nigeria did not meet the legal threshold for its designationanymore, and to deny that the move was linked to Blinken’s travels to Nigeria, a critical African ally. Nigeria was just added to the list last year by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a move long pushed by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the US president is required to annually review the status of religious freedom in every country in the world and designate each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” as a Country of Particular Concern. The law defines particularly severe violations as “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom,” including violations such as torture, prolonged detention without charges, forced disappearance or other flagrant denial of life, liberty, or security of persons. Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan all made the list this year. Algeria, Comoros, Cuba and Nicaragua were placed on the lower-tier Special Watch List, while Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, the Islamic State (ISIS), ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and the Taliban were designated as Entities of Particular Concern.
Blinken’s decision on Nigeria has worried conservatives, including many evangelical Christians, about the Biden administration’s potential de-emphasizing of the plight of Christians persecuted overseas – a cause advanced by the administration of former President Donald Trump. It also underscored for many the need to confirm the candidate for the position of ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, who could have provided stronger advocacy on the Nigeria issue, with the absence instead allowing greater influence of the department’s powerful regional offices. The international religious freedom ambassador is the lead official across the entire government working to mobilize diplomatic, development and defense tools to identify challenges and promote religious freedom, along with building religious literacy and awareness of religious freedom concerns within the US government.
The nomination of Rashad Hussain, who would be the first Muslim in the role of international religious freedom ambassador, is still languishing in the US Senate, awaiting a confirmation vote by that body’s foreign relations committee before heading to a final, full Senate vote. The hold-up does not appear to be due to any noticeable anti-Muslim bias or concerns. In fact, Hussain has garnered the support of a number of notable Christian conservatives.
“By nominating a Muslim to serve as IRF ambassador, the Biden administration is decisively turning the page on an era in which a perception of anti-Muslim sentiment undermined the nation’s reputation on religious freedom. Rashad Hussain will help to restore America’s credibility as a champion of tolerance and inclusion,” Stephen Liston,former director of the Office of International Religious Freedom, told The Media Line.
“We’ve had Christians in that role and a rabbi. A Muslim is a good choice,” said Liston.
Samuel Brownback, who last held the religious freedom ambassador role, and whose positions on Islam and LGBTQ rights were criticized during his own nomination process, recently urged the Senate to take up Hussain’s nomination.
“Religious persecution is running rampant around the world. The US needs an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom now, without further delay. The Senate should confirm Rashad Hussain as soon as possible so that he can get to work,” Brownback said.
The State Department refused The Media Line’s request to make an official available to speak about the office’s operations in the Middle East and North Africa, urging patience until Hussain’s confirmation.
“The role of the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom is vital for setting the agenda and energy behind the US effort to promote religious freedom and is a catalyst for global efforts. The energy and stature brought to the position from previous Ambassador Samuel Brownback helped to galvanize a global movement, including the launch of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, and other such efforts. The IRF ambassador can elevate and energize the issue, urging like-minded allies to take concrete actions to promote religious freedom,” Jeremy Barker, director of the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, told The Media Line.
“Additionally, the International Religious Freedom ambassador serves as the senior official advising the Secretary of State on religious freedom issues globally. Whether this is in navigating religious repression amidst rising authoritarianism, the religious dimensions of civil war, or violence by non-state actors targeting houses of worship or particular religious communities, religious freedom concerns are relevant in every region of the world and across a range of issues. The established diplomatic and policy credentials that Rashad Hussain brings to the position should enable him to thrive in this area,” Barker said.
Hussain appears to be well-qualified for the position. The son of Indian-American immigrants, he served as associate White House counsel, US envoy to Muslim countries as US special envoy of President Barack Obama to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the US special envoy for strategic counterterrorism communications. Hussain also has served on the National Security Council and in the Department of Justice as a trial attorney, and as a criminal and national security prosecutor. In his role as envoy to the OIC, Hussain traveled to numerous countries and international gatherings, served as a foreign policy adviser, and met with foreign leaders and Muslim communities around the world. The OIC envoy position, created by President George W. Bush, was described at the time as a kind of ambassador-at-large to Muslim countries.
Hussain’s experiences as a Muslim-American could give him extra credibility. “I greatly respect his thoughtful, humble and capacious approach to all things religion and diplomacy, including the promotion of religious freedom. He understands the religious minority experience and is a passionate advocate for all those who suffer on account of their beliefs,” said Liston.
Hussain’s background may prove especially important in dealing with the Middle East and North Africa, long known as hotbeds for religious persecution and violence. Hussain previously helped organize Muslim leaders on two trips to visit Holocaust sites to address Holocaust denial, and guided an interfaith delegation to Egypt to help protect the Coptic Christian community.
“Rashad Hussain brings a depth of experience to the role that includes navigating challenging issues within the Middle East. In previous roles, he has directly engaged the OIC, including pushback on a problematic ‘Defamation of Religion’ proposal that essentially would result in the expansion of blasphemy laws that are often abused against religious minorities or those who dissent from state-sanctioned orthodoxy. His own personal faith makes him well-positioned to advance principled arguments that religious freedom is not a threat to belief, but grounded in human dignity, and protects the right of all people to freely believe and live out their faith, individually and in community with others in all aspects of life,” said Barker.
“There is no shortage of challenges to be addressed in the region,” Barker continued. “The re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan presents an opportunity where collaboration with Muslim majority states or institutions such as the OIC could be vital in protecting fundamental freedoms for vulnerable populations such as religious minorities, women and girls, and rights advocates. In Sudan, substantial progress on religious freedom over the past two years seemed in jeopardy with a military coup. While Sudan appears to be returning to civilian government status, the protection of religious freedom remains a vital issue to address. A country like Algeria – recentlyadded to the State Department's Special Watch List – also represents an opportunity for engagement, showing that the religious freedom of Protestant Christians or other groups is not a threat,” Barker said.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Hussain suggested that America should encourage Muslim-majority nations to protest China’s treatment of its Muslim population. Hussain’s experience in interfaith diplomacy has won him plaudits from across the religious spectrum, with Religious Freedom Institute, Open Doors, the American Jewish Committee, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Anti-Defamation League, International Christian Concern and other religious freedom advocates pushing for his confirmation. Hussain also oversaw the Marrakesh Declaration, an effort to ensure protections for Christians and other minority religious groups in OIC member states.
A spokesperson for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could not give The Media Line a time frame for a committee vote on Hussain’s nomination, but said that a number of important nominations are stalled at the moment due to a combination of more pressing matters, a full Senate calendar and “partisan political concerns.”