Religious freedom experts are saying the White House’s decision to fill the ambassador for religious freedom post, after a vacancy of nearly two and a half years, shows the issue is low on the priority list for the Obama administration.
“The administration does not seem to understand the central importance of religious freedom – to both American values, and American interests,” international human rights lawyer Nina Shea told CNA on June 2.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the swearing-in of pastor Suzan Johnson Cook as the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a position created by Congress in 1998.
Although President Obama had nominated Cook in 2010, her nomination encountered difficulties and expired in Congress. She was renominated in February 2011.
Thomas Farr – a former diplomat who heads the Religious Freedom project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs – agreed with Shea that the current administration has shown a lack of vigilance for global religious freedom.
“From its founding, the United States has understood religious freedom as 'the first freedom,' that is, at the heart of human dignity and necessary to the health of American democracy,” Farr told CNA in a June 2 interview.
“As Christian and other minorities suffer a crisis of persecution in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is vital that the United States stand with them.”
Shea, who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., explained that the U.S. ambassador for religious freedom acts as “chief advocate for those around the world persecuted for religious reasons.”
“No one is specifically tasked with looking at geo-political issues from the exclusive perspective of religious freedom interests, except for this ambassador.”
Shea noted that the position was created by Congress over a decade ago, “precisely because such concerns were slipping through the cracks in the forging of American foreign policy.”
Yet in 2011, the “question of religious freedom has never been more salient,” she said.
The human rights advocate cited the examples of China,Vietnam and North Korea, which she says continue to suppress religious believers on the basis of communist party ideology.
Eritrea and Burma are also “long-time repressors of various religions in order to consolidate the dictatorship’s rule,” she said.
In the Muslim world, there is also “an alarming trend to rule by Islamist totalitarianism,” Shea said, noting that Iran and Saudi Arabia are spreading this type of “repressive rule” to other countries.
As a nation, “we seem to be witnessing the destruction of religious diversity in formerly pluralistic Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere,” she said.
Shea also pointed to Algeria and Morocco as places attacks and acts of persecution are carried out against Christians, adding that Turkey’s non-Muslim population is getting smaller every year, “primarily due to a morass of state regulation that strangles Christians, Jews and other minorities.”
Despite the persecution religious minorities experience in these countries, however, the Obama administration has remained largely silent on the issue.
Shea highlighted President Obama's speech to the Middle East last month, where he outlined concrete steps on American support for the region’s economy.
“By contrast, no specific steps were mentioned to promote religious freedom – based on the events since January, the lack of which for the Christian Copts of Egypt can be expected to result in instability and human misery for years to come,” she said.
In Farr’s view, the “vigorous promotion” of international religious freedom benefits not only the interests and values of the U.S., but those of other developing countries as well.
“We must convince Middle Eastern religious actors, societies, and governments that religious freedom is necessary if they are to achieve what they wish,” he said.
“In the cases of Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, they seek stable, lasting democracy.”
“Both history and modern scholarship make it clear that they cannot succeed unless they embrace, in law and culture, the institutions and habits of religious liberty.”
“That is what our policy should be advancing,” he underscored.
Farr, who also served as the first head of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, said that Ambassador Cook “lacks experience in diplomacy and religious freedom.”
However, she is an “intelligent and highly motivated woman,” he added, “she can learn.”
Cook is currently the 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.
“I wish her the best at the State Department,” Farr said.
Shea likewise expressed her best wishes to Cook as she begins her appointment as ambassador.