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Biden nominates Khizr Khan, others to key religious freedom roles

The Biden administration on Friday announced its nominees for two key faith-related posts at the State Department, signaling an interest in stepping up its efforts to combat religious persecution around the world.

Rashad Hussain, who is currently the director for partnerships and global engagement at the National Security Council, has been selected for the role of U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. He previously worked at the State Department during the Obama administration as U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and U.S. Special Envoy for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications.

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If confirmed by the Senate, Hussain will be the first Muslim to serve as America’s religious freedom ambassador.

The post, which was vacated in January by former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, was created by Congress in the late 1990s as part of a broader push to better integrate faith-related initiatives into the country’s foreign policy work.

In 2004, Congress added to that push by creating the role of U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. On Friday, President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Deborah E. Lipstadt, a Jewish history and Holocaust studies professor at Emory University, to that position.

“Lipstadt is a renowned scholar of the Holocaust and antisemitism,” the statement said, noting that she previously served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Persecution Abroad and was picked by former President George W. Bush to represent the White House at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The Biden administration on Friday also unveiled two new appointments to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan group that assists with the government’s work to end religious violence.

Khizr Khan, a gold star military parent and attorney, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who leads Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, will join a diverse group of human rights activists and faith leaders. Khan burst onto the national scene in 2016 during the Democratic National Convention when he criticized then-candidate Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslim Americans.
Khizr Khan, father of fallen U.S. Army Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, accompanied by his wife Ghazala, speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The administration highlighted the value of religious diversity in its statement announcing the nominees and appointments.

“Today’s announcement underscores the president’s commitment to build an administration that looks like America and reflects people of all faiths,” it said.

Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement that it is particularly meaningful to see Muslims elevated to high-profile religious freedom roles.

“The nominations of Rashad Hussain and Khizr Khan represent an important step in the Biden Administration’s commitment to build a government that reflects the diversity of our nation. It is important that American Muslims — and particularly Muslim youth — see themselves and their values reflected in our nation’s government,” he said.

Similarly, Madihha Ahussain, senior policy counsel for Muslim Advocates, praised the Biden administration for embracing religious diversity.

“For too long, American Muslims have been locked out of these conversations and these positions,” she said.

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