Press Releases: Remarks at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom David Saperstein

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good afternoon to all of you. Please, sit down. (Inaudible) come on, you’ve got to sit down. Relax. They get to sit. You all – (laughter) – just fight for your space. I didn’t know David traveled with his own cheering cohort here. (Laughter.) This is pretty impressive, folks. I think in the days ahead if the going gets tough, I’m sticking with this guy. (Laughter.) Because I get all of you with it, I hope.
Thank you very, very much for being here despite what we in Boston call a heatwave. (Laughter.) I appreciate your being here. And somewhere – I haven’t located him yet – but I’m told that His Eminence Cardinal McCarrick is joining us here. I’m very honored, personally, to be able to welcome him here. And the member – particularly the members of David’s extraordinarily talented family: Ellen, the journalist; Marc, the historian; Daniel, the musician and the ceramicist; Ari, the budding writer and painter; Joelle, the social justice advocate; and of course, David, for whom the apex of human history was the World Series victory of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. (Laughter.) Coming from Boston, I can empathize, folks. (Laughter.)
But really it’s amazing to see all of you here today, and your being here is really an underscoring of the value that President Obama and I both believed existed in being able to cajole and encourage and plead with David to be willing to take on this critical role. As I look out at you, I sort of say to myself either Ambassador Saperstein has a lot of friends or some of you have been waiting for this swearing-in for a long time – one or the other. (Laughter.)
Ben Franklin, for whom this room is named – his portrait over there – defined patience as the ability to wait and wait without getting upset. So I don’t know how patient all of you really are, but I will tell you we have a very, very good reason to celebrate today. Either David Saperstein was created with the job of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in mind or the job was created with him in mind, and I say that with great respect to the other ambassadors who are here who have preceded him. I can tell you with certainty that we – now that we finally have an ambassador, and everybody knows the journey that has taken, we’re going to use him.
He’s going to be – in fact, he already is President Obama’s and my chief advisor on religious liberty. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell this audience but since the days of Thomas Jefferson, religious freedom has been at the absolute center of American values and an essential component of our foreign policy, and it is especially relevant right now for all of the obvious and tragic reasons.
Our generation prides itself on its modernity, and yet we are still grappling with rivalries that have their roots in the distant past. Today, thousands of people are in prison because of their religious practices or beliefs. In the Central African Republic, Christian and Muslim militias are engaged in a bloody conflict. In Burma, radical Buddhists are seeking to deny citizenship to an Islamic minority. In the Middle East and Africa, terror networks such as Daesh and Boko Haram are betraying fundamental principles of their own religion of Islam. Major European cities are struggling to cope with the aftermath of terror attacks, amid evidence of anti-Semitism, radicalization, Islamophobia. Our own country has mourned the loss of journalists – earlier this month the death of a young woman who said she saw God in the eyes of the suffering and who dedicated her life to helping others – and lost hers for doing so.
So I’m not exaggerating when I say that we need a steady voice to speak for us and to us on these issues and to do so in the larger context of religious freedom. That’s why President Obama and I have turned to David Saperstein, because we wanted someone who was indelibly defined for this passion, someone who was incredibly smart, tough as nails, persuasive, and who has a real appreciation for the ethical values that truly are a critical part of the foundation of every major religious tradition.
We also wanted someone, quite frankly, who wouldn’t be shy in speaking up for religion, and in pointing out all the contributions that faith communities make each day to building peace, preventing genocide, promoting human rights, helping people to escape hunger, ignorance, disease. This is a great story that really cannot be told too often, and David is the man to tell it now.
It’s certainly the case that when we look at what violent extremists are up to around the globe – the killings, the rapes, the slavery, the bigotry, the destruction of religious sites – we all feel an unbelievable, deep sense of horror, a sense of being dragged back somehow centuries, diverted from the path that we all aspire to for the 21st century. But the horror that we witness should not make us stupid. The terrorists may scream from the roof tops that their crimes are God’s will; but you can’t frame God for what thugs do. This is a kind of criminal anarchy that we are witnessing. Any idiot can murder a human being, but there isn’t a sword sharp enough to destroy truth.
Now, I have known David Saperstein for three decades. As a senator, I often found myself reaching out to the religious community and Rabbi Saperstein was always there, reaching back. Together we got behind the CHIPS legislation for children’s health care. We pushed for the proposed Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which unfortunately never passed. We were partners in the struggle to help veterans who had been affected by Agent Orange. And we have been allies in trying to awaken the world to the dangers of climate change – and let me just say that when it comes to the fundamental health of Earth, folks, we’d better stick to the Creator’s original plan, because there is no Planet B. (Applause.)
Now, as many of you know, David spent an incredible 40 years, four decades, as Director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. And in the event you’re wondering, this means that he started on the job when he was about 12 years old. (Laughter.) In the time since, he has become one of our nation’s leading voices on behalf of social justice in its dimensions. He served on the boards of the NAACP, the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, the World Bank’s “World Faith Development Dialogue.” He was also the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and in 2009 was appointed by President Obama to the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
So I know what brings you here. It is the fact that is underscored by all of these titles, that this is a man with a lot of experience dealing with hard issues and strong personalities, which is good because the office that he is assuming is equipped with a very, very full inbox.
Even before this public swearing-in, the ambassador went to Canada to meet with his counterpart there. He’s been part of the presidential delegation already for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and he just returned from Iraq, where religious issues are intimately connected to one of the top priorities on our entire international agenda. And here, I’d just point out that the plight of minority religions, which is desperate in Iraq, is not going to be forgotten or ignored by this Administration.
Religious liberty implies an attitude towards others which extends beyond mere tolerance. Bob Seiple, who was the ambassador-at-large in the Clinton Administration and who is here, said that if we understand our own faiths deeply enough, we will feel called to learn enough about the faiths of others not simply to tolerate them but also to respect them and their beliefs. And respect, in turn, demands legal equality. It demands that the practitioners of a majority faith cannot force others to be like them or to be treated as second-class citizens.
The job of our ambassador-at-large is to highlight these principles not so much by lecturing as through advocacy and persuasion. Naming and shaming has its place here and there, but when it comes to religious freedom, our goal is less to make other countries do what we want them to, rather than to convince them to want what we want, to help them understand that their societies will do better and be more united when their citizens are able to practice every aspect of their faiths without coercion or fear. Religious pluralism encourages and enables contributions from all. Religious discrimination can be the source of conflicts that endanger all.
So friends, for decades, David Saperstein’s voice has been heard on behalf of freedom and justice, been a tireless spokesperson for policies that respect the fundamental dignity and human rights of every single human being. Now we are pleased that his eloquent voice is going to be given a larger platform which to proclaim the message, a universal message of religious liberty, and that is what makes this a good day for freedom and a great day for all of us.
Now I could go on, but I am constantly reminded by Ecclesiastes, if not by my wife, “God is in heaven and thou upon Earth, therefore let your words be few.” (Laughter.) So Ambassador, let’s get to the job of swearing you in with an oath that is at the foundation of our country, pretty much the same oath I took and others have taken for years in the Senate and the job I have today, and it’s my honor to administer it to you now. If you would step up. Thank you. (Applause.)
(The oath of office was administered and the appointment papers were signed.)
SECRETARY KERRY: Congratulations, Ambassador. (Applause.) Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ambassador David Saperstein. (Applause.)
AMBASSADOR SAPERSTEIN: Mr. Secretary, I am so deeply honored by the confidence that you and President Obama have placed in me to serve our nation advancing the right of freedom of religion around the globe. To thank all of you here today adequately for your friendship, your mentorship, partnership, inspiration, support would use up my entire allotted time. But to my wife, Ellen Weiss, a distinguished journalist; my sons Daniel and Ari, of whom I am so, so proud; to my brother Marc, one of this generation’s leading Jewish scholars and my most influential teacher; to my remarkable colleagues from the; and the Reform Jewish movement – I see Rabbi Yoffie here – to whom I owe so much, with a special shout-out of gratitude to Daphne Price and to Allison Porton. (Applause.)
To my three groundbreaking predecessors, Ambassadors Seiple, Hanford, Johnson Cook – indeed, to all of you here, my heartfelt thanks and appreciation.
During my career, my mandate has indeed covered a wide range of issues, but there are few that have been as central to my heart as that of religious freedom, for like most Jews, I know all too well that over the centuries, the Jewish people have been a quintessential victim of religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and demonization. Indeed, the Bible on which I affirmed the oath today was published at the turn of the century by the Hebrew publishing company owned by – in part by part of my mother’s family and purchased by my great-grandfather, an orthodox rabbi, on my father’s side, both part of families that left Europe looking for refuge, freedom, and opportunity in this great land, which distinctly offered all three. But through too many tragedies we have learned firsthand the cost of universal – to universal rights, security, and wellbeing of religious communities when good people remain silent in the face of persecution.
This is just one key reason why I stand here today, to affirm that I cannot remain silent. When we see historic Christian, Yezidi, other communities in Iraq, from which I have just returned, in Syria being devastated; when we see Baha’is in Iran, Tibetan Buddhists in China, Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Rohingya Muslims in Burma, all victims of governmental or societal discrimination, harassment, persecution, physical attacks, sexual violence, enslavement – even in Western Europe we are witnessing a steady increase in anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and anti-Semitic discourse and acts of desecration and violence against Jewish individuals, synagogues, and institutions and communities that we thought we would never, never see again after World War II.
Sadly, this list is far from exhaustive, but shows a broad range of serious threats to religious freedom and religious communities in nearly every corner of the globe. I approach my new responsibilities mindful of Dr. Martin Luther King’s warning, who challenged our nation and humanity – is a remarkable Riverside Church speech on Vietnam: “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”
Well we, all of us here, do this work because we are all determined not to be too late. Yet we do this work at a time when forces aligned against religious freedom have grown alarmingly strong. Encouragingly, in many countries such freedoms flourish. Yet in even more countries, religious freedom faces daunting, alarming, growing challenges. According to the Pew Forum, 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom remains seriously limited and many religious minorities face persecution, intimidation, and harassment. Most vividly, the whole world has witnessed the tragic, violent attacks by ISIL, known as Daesh, against peoples of many faiths – most recently the tragic, tragic targeting of Egyptian Copts in Libya. Even as we must respond to this specific crisis, we will win the battle of freedom only when our long-term goal must be to ensure the internationally recognized right to religious freedom for everyone and every group. It is an urgent task and the needs are great.
And in this spirit, Mr. Secretary, I express to you personally and I believe on behalf of most others here, and to President Obama, my abiding admiration, appreciation for your powerful and eloquent espousal of religious freedom that you have consistently expressed – the extraordinary summit combatting violent extremism that you drove to its culmination this week, and your support for me and for this cause that is shared so strongly by others here – Under Secretary Sarah Sewall, Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Tom Malinowski – is a blessing for this cause. And I am inspired by how talented, dedicated, tireless, and skilled are the staffs of the human rights and religious freedom offices, the latter led so ably by Brian Bachman and Dan Nadel, to whom I owe so much, and the members and staff of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, with whom I am blessed to work.
It will not be enough for us to mourn victims of religious persecution or even to condemn the traducers of faith who murder in its name. That just-concluded summit dramatizes America’s role in actualizing, facilitating, coordinating, mobilizing, shaping effective responses, even while learning from the best practices across the globe. And the Inter-Religious Freedom office, the IRF office, must play a key role in this effort.
And towards that end, I stand here to affirm five priorities: To use this position fervently; to advocate for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief; for the rights of individuals to practice, choose and change their faith safely; not only living their faith through worship, but through teaching, preaching, practice, and observance; as well as the right to hold no religious beliefs; and consequently, to seek strongly anti-blasphemy and apostasy laws.
Second, to engage every segment of the State Department and other departments of the United States Government to integrate religious freedom robustly, firmly into our nation’s statecraft. Religious discrimination and marginalization, as the Secretary has said, makes every other job we do here harder, from fighting terror to keeping the peace and enhancing communal stability, to building economic opportunity and upholding democratic values. Conversely, religious freedom tolerance efforts must make robust use of our Administration’s broad communication strategies that you’ve helped shape, and of our indispensable efforts to enhance internet freedom and firewall circumvention since the internet more and more is a highway of faith, more and more an antidote to the isolation and control that persecuting regimes must practice to keep religious minorities in fear and themselves in power. We must work together as a team, and my office is committed to being a valuable part of that team.
Third, to ensure the integrity of the annual International Religious Freedom report to regularize annual reviews of country designations for countries of particular concern which are such key instruments in motivating progress.
Fourth, to elevate the focus of religious freedom in regional and multilateral organizations within the international community at large. With my gifted Canadian counterpart, Ambassador Andrew Bennett, we are committed to mobilizing a contact group of ministers and ambassadors for religious freedom in countries all across the globe – not just in the Western countries but in the Southern Hemisphere as well – to stand for religious freedom, to coordinate and reinforce our common efforts, just as USCIRF has done so effectively in a parliamentarian level.
And finally, to draw on the insights of all of you gathered here today in supporting civil society, including religious communities, in shaping policies that contribute to isolating and delegitimizing extremist religious voices. To this end, I will work closely with my longtime friend Shaun Casey, brilliant, talented leader appointed by Secretary Kerry, to enhance the Department’s engagement with religious issues and communities.
I feel keenly the presence of my parents, so allow me to – who traveled the globe, visiting 80 countries long before jet planes were a norm. How they did it, I will never understand. And they came back and spoke eloquently of religious communities all across the globe.
So allow me to conclude with a personal story. In the summer of 1939, my father traveled throughout Poland and Palestine. He was one of the last to see the glory of European Jewry in full bloom. He visited Danzig, now Gdansk, just days after the Nazis had taken over. He went with enthusiasm to see the magnificent historic main synagogue of this vibrant Jewish community. To his utter dismay, it lay shattered in ruins. Only the portal over what had been the beautiful entrance front doors still stood. On the lawn, there was a sign that had been erected by the Nazis during the campaign which read “Komm lieber Mai und mache von Juden uns jetzt frei – come dear month of May and free us from the Jews.” With a chilling sense of the impending disaster symbolized by this scene, he gazed upward and saw the words – the ancient vision of Malachi, still inscribed over that remaining doorway: “Halo Av echad l’chulanu; halo eyl echad b’ra’anu – have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Two visions: one of hatred and tyranny, the other of brotherhood and sisterhood, of unity and peace; one of oppression, the other of freedom; one of darkness and despair, the other of light and hope.” This is a choice we face today.
To the religiously oppressed in every land who live in fear, afraid to speak of their beliefs; who worship in underground churches, mosques, or temples, lest authorities discover and punish their devotion to an authority higher than the state; who languish in prisons, simply because they love God in their own way; who question the existence of God; who feel so desperate that they flee their homes to avoid persecution, indeed, as we have seen so often to avoid simply being killed because of their faith – to all of them, together, you and I here, the State Department, this Administration, the Congress, together our nation can be, must be, will be a beacon of light and hope.
I pray that contributing to the fulfillment of that dream will be my legacy. Bless you all for being here. (Applause.)
SECRETARY KERRY: He said, “My God, a standing ovation.” (Laughter.) For most people. Well, I guess it was sort of worth the wait and worth the appointment just for that. (Laughter.) That was very special. Ladies and gentlemen, if you would line up, sort of starting over here. David and Hillevi, everybody going to line up here to say hello to all of you and thank you for coming. Thank you all very, very much. Thank you. (Applause.)

Human Rights