In the wake of criticism from religious leaders and political experts, President Obama has moved to appoint a religious freedom ambassador, a post he has allowed to remain vacant for the more than two years he has held office.
On Feb. 7 the White House announced that the President had re-submitted the nomination of pastor Suzan Johnson Cook as the Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, a position created by Congress in 1998.
Her re-nomination came only days after Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver urged the president in a letter to demonstrate a stronger commitment to global religious freedom.
Although President Obama had nominated Cook last June, her nomination encountered difficulties and expired in Congress.
Thomas Farr, the first head of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, said that the administration’s failure thus far to appoint an ambassador shows a troubling indifference to the issue.
In a Feb. 8 interview with CNA, he expressed concern with the president’s nominee, citing Cook’s lack of any prior diplomatic experience.
Cook is currently pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City and founder of the Worldwide Wisdom Center. She also served as an advisor on President Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council and as Chaplain to the New York Police Department.
“Frankly, it's hard to know whether the thing to do at this point is to get behind the president's nominee,” said Farr, who heads the Religious Freedom project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
He added that “there is an argument to be made” that the U.S. simply needs “to get somebody in that job.” Cook, he said, is “an accomplished woman of good will who wants to do the job well and can learn.”
However, Farr said that the crisis in Egypt shows the need for an experienced diplomat and a strategic understanding of the religious dimensions of foreign policy.
Farr said that if the ambassador’s post had been filled from the start, the administration would have at least a working knowledge and more thorough understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic group is rising in prominence amid Egypt’s protests and is considered to be the best-organized opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
However, “we don't know their proximity to power and one of the reasons we don't know is because American diplomacy does not do religion very well,” he said. “We have not thought very carefully about the religious aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood in power or near power, but we need to do that.”
“Imagine if we'd had somebody for the last two years,” he added, who had “the resources and the authority” needed to effectively comprehend the situation. “We would be in a better position than we are today.”
Farr called the ambassador’s position crucial in terms of representing the U.S.’s stance on protecting religious freedom to other countries.
The religious freedom ambassador, he explained, “is empowered to go anywhere in the world” and “have substantive talks with any group and any government in the world on issues of religious freedom.”
The position also allows for appealing to Congress to fund programs for the advancement of religious freedom and to “empower indigenous forces” in countries throughout the world, including Egypt, he said.
“Unfortunately, I know nothing about this administration that suggests they see any religious freedom issue in what's going on the Egypt,” he said.
CNA contacted the White House on Feb. 8 to discuss Cook's re-nomination. A spokesperson declined to comment.
In a Feb. 1 letter, Archbishop Chaput – a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – warned President Obama of “a growing worldwide crisis in religious freedom.” He urged the president to fill the post of religious freedom ambassador and to “develop an international religious freedom strategy that engages all elements of our foreign policy establishment.”
“Some 70 percent of the world's people live in nations – regrettably, many of them Muslim-majority countries – where religious freedom is gravely restricted,” the archbishop wrote. “The concern of many Catholics in my own diocese – and I believe across the United States – is that insufficient policy attention has been given to this mounting problem.”