In a Federal Page article yesterday, the name of Robert A. Seiple, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was misspelled. (Published 12/01/1999)
The first hint that Robert A. Seipel is no ordinary diplomat sits on the coffee table outside his office on the State Department's seventh floor. There amid piles of newspapers is a stack of magazines--not Newsweek or Foreign Affairs but Christianity Today, a monthly for evangelical Christians.
Seipel, 56, is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a recently created post whose mandate is to promote the rights of religious minorities around the world and to ensure that religious rights become an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.
He is also, as his reading material attests, a true believer: an evangelical Christian who espouses a conservative theological doctrine that centers on the infallible nature of Scripture and the obligation to spread its message. Before coming to the State Department in August 1998, Seipel played football at Brown University, flew 300 hundred combat missions over Vietnam and ran one of the world's largest Christian aid groups.
Seipel's religious beliefs are not without relevance to his job.
Under strong pressure from conservative Christians, Congress last year passed--and President Clinton signed--the International Religious Freedom Act, which created Seipel's job and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Because the law was inspired largely by the plight of Christian minorities in such places as China and Sudan, human rights advocates questioned whether the measure would be applied with equal vigor to non-Christians--such as Shiite Muslims in Saudi Arabia--who also suffer from discrimination and worse.
A lanky man with a deliberate, low-key manner, Seipel says the answer is evident in the first report--on religious discrimination worldwide--issued by his office in September.
"I don't see how they can say that the focus is on Christians if the report mentions the faith beliefs of the Bahais [of Iran], of Hindus, of Buddhists and so on," he said in a recent interview. "The legislation does not lift up any one particular faith, does not put down any one particular faith. . . . The only requirement for working here is to feel passionate about the issue" of religious freedom.
Joe Stork, advocacy director for the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, praised the report as "fairly reasonable in the sense of being comprehensive and [containing] decent analysis. . . . It's good that it's increasing attention to the problem [of] . . . religious persecution."
But Stork also noted that most of the cases in which the United States intervened diplomatically on behalf of religious minorities in the Middle East tended to "involve sort of Christian situations." He said that of the six countries singled out for sanctions under the religious freedom act, all but China are so-called pariah states such as Iran, Iraq and Serbia--suggesting that politics played a role in the designations.
"It shouldn't be selective where you just look at your adversaries," Stork said.
Seipel, a self-described "non-careerist," has taken an unconventional path to State.
After graduating from Brown with a degree in American literature in 1965, Seipel joined the Marine Corps and headed for Vietnam, where he flew night bombing runs over North Vietnam in an A-6 attack jet. He still remembers the sight of a surface-to-air missile streaking toward his plane.
"You don't forget them," he said. "They're about about 60 feet long with another 60 feet of flame when they cross your nose. The tactic that you use against them, because they're traveling so fast, is you try to put them on your nose . . . and then at a certain time you peel off and they're going so fast they can't make the turn."
Such moments of terror, he says, only strengthened his faith. "It was a sustaining force. There were occasions going in when we felt frankly [that] a certain mission would end in death. That challenges every shred of faith that you have."
After leaving Vietnam with numerous combat decorations, Seipel returned to Brown as director of the athletic program and vice president for development. He later became president of Eastern College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary outside Philadelphia before heading World Vision Inc., the world's largest private relief and development agency, for 11 years. He joined State as a special adviser to the president and the secretary of state for international religious freedom; he was appointed to his current post by Clinton in May.
Seipel says his efforts on behalf of religious freedom will always be subject to second-guessing.
"It comes with the territory," he said. "If we don't get shot at from all directions we probably have disappointed someone and didn't get it quite right ourselves. This is a minefield."
Robert A. Seipel
Title: Ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Education: Bachelor's degree in American literature, Brown University.
Family: Married, three children, one grandchild.
Previous jobs: Combat pilot, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam; athletic director and vice president for development, Brown University; president, World Vision Inc.
Hobbies: Hunting, fishing.
CAPTION: Robert Seipel, an evangelical Christian, once flew combat missions in Vietnam and later headed World Vision, a private religious charity.