Six positions at the State Department relating to religion have been vacant since January, the Deseret News reported on April 26.
Additionally, the Office to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism might be entirely eliminated. The two part-time employees who currently staff the office will be reassigned in July, according to CBN News.
The empty positions also include the Special envoy to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Special Representative to Muslim communities, the Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Special envoy for Holocaust Issues, according to State.gov.
Instead of filling these offices, Deseret News and Religion News Service say the Trump administration wants to do away with some of the positions entirely. Hannah Rosenthal, former Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism, wrote in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle she considers it a tragedy.
“It became a congressional mandate so that no matter who is president or secretary of state, the commitment to stand up to anti-Semitism would remain safe and strong,” Rosenthal said. “Now we will turn a blind eye. And at a time when we are seeing such an increase of acts of anti-Semitism in our country, it is unconscionable that such a tool in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal will be gone.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there were good intentions behind the creation of such offices and special envoys, especially in regards to anti-Semitism, but still believes they are counterproductive, according to CBN News.
“If we’re really going to affect these areas … don’t we have to affect it through the delivery on mission at every level at every country?” Tillerson said before the Foreign Operations Committee and lawyers earlier in June, according to Newsweek. “By having a special envoy, one of my experiences is, mission then says, ‘Oh, we’ve got somebody else that does,’ and then they stop doing it.”
Under President Trump’s public budget proposal, federal funding to the State Department and USAID will decrease by 28 percent, in order to “pursue greater efficiencies through reorganization and consolidation in order to enable effective diplomacy and development.”
But reducing the State Department’s budget and eliminating its ability to reach out to religious actors would be detrimental to American diplomacy, reported Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, according to the Deseret News.
“The office’s budget is mere pocket change in the grander scheme of national security funding, and its many contributions … far outweigh its costs,” BI reported.
The budget cuts are part of an effort to turn Trump’s campaign promises into action. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the cuts are tough but rational, according to Bloomberg.
“This is not waste, fraud and abuse — this is like lopping off a right arm and a right leg,” said federal budget expert Stan Collender, according to Bloomberg. He believes the impact will be significant.
The position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom also remains vacant under Trump’s administration.
“In a world in which religious persecution and violent extremism are virulent, destabilizing and growing, the new administration cannot afford such lassitude in filling this position,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, in a statement to WORLD. “It should fill the position immediately.”
WORLD reported the position remained empty for 16 months under President George Bush, and for 27 months under President Barack Obama. A transition memo from the Trump administration mandated all ambassadors leave their posts before inauguration day, even if they had wanted to stay until their replacements came.
Upon hearing about the possibility that such religion-related positions might be eliminated, 167 members of Congress sent a letter to President Trump, urging him to recognize the importance of the Office of the Special Envoy, according to Deseret News.
Another letter was sent to Trump by the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting attacks on religious freedom. The letter urged Trump to appoint an International Religious Freedom ambassador in his first 100 days. The letter was signed by more than 400 people from a myriad of organizations.
“We write as a group of individuals who are religious leaders, educators and scholars, business professionals and human rights advocates,” the letter read. “By nominating an ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom in your first 100 days you can signal your commitment to people of faith and freedom of conscience, in a way that requires no new taxes, and no new legislation while strengthening highly effective offices.”
It has been 164 days since the inauguration of President Trump, and there is still no IRF ambassador.
Critics are afraid the Trump administration will lose the traction the United States has built over the past few years in regards to religious outreach, according to The Hill. These religion-related special envoys and offices were all created after 1998, when Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act.
These positions are necessary because one strength of the U.S. is its human rights and religious freedom values, said one former State Department official, under the condition of anonymity, to Deseret News. When promoting U.S. foreign policy, the official said religion is a useful tool to address problems and navigate interactions, especially because most of the world’s population is religious.
“Many (world religions) are tied together by the Golden Rule,” wrote former Secretary of State John Kerry, in a 2015 article for America Magazine. “They share fundamental concerns about the human condition, poverty, human relationships and our responsibilities to each other … Leaders in public life need to recognize that in a world where people of all religious traditions are migrating and mingling like never before, we ignore the global impact of religion at our peril.”