The reported resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook as U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom is an chance for the Obama administration to address the issue, but some are dubious that real changes will be made.
“If the position remains vacant, or if it is filled with someone not qualified to move this issue into the mainstream of diplomacy, that will confirm the views of the critics – including me – that the administration does not see (international religious freedom) policy as a priority,” Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University told Christianity Today.
He explained in the Oct. 18 interview that the confirmation of Johnson Cook’s successor will be a good indicator of the Obama administration’s attitude towards international religious freedom.
“Whatever the reason for her departure, the vacancy provides a dramatic opportunity for the Obama administration to adopt an aggressive, effective strategy of advancing religious freedom abroad.”
Cook’s retirement was first reported by Religion News Service on Oct. 16 when Joseph Grieboski, founder of The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, tweeted a picture with her saying that it was taken “on her last day.” Rob Schenck of Faith and Action posted pictures to Instagram “celebrating the legacy” of the ambassador.
Despite widespread reports of Cook's resignation, the Department of State has not been able to confirm the accuracy of these reports to CNA, although they occurred nearly one week ago.
While Cook’s passion for religious freedom is certain, her tenure in office has drawn criticism.
In an earlier interview with CNA, Farr pointed out that Obama allowed the ambassador position to remain vacant for more than two years before finally appointing Cook; she was sworn-in in June, 2011. Once she started her job, Farr said, she was buried “deep in the bureaucracy, without authority or resources.”
Religious freedom organizations ranging from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to congressional representatives have criticized the administration’s minimization of the role of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in defiance of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the position.
Additionally, they have critiqued the state department’s reservation towards adopting suggestions of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s yearly report under Cook, as well as its failure to enforce sanctions against some nations which restrict religious freedom.
Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Christianity Today that he hopes the Obama administration “will nominate someone who shares (Cook's) deep dedication to religious freedom and who will work closely with us at the commission on behalf of so many people in lands today across the globe who are persecuted for their beliefs and religious practices.”
Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, wrote in an Oct. 18 blog post that Cook’s resignation “will allow the Obama Administration to take another step towards getting its religious act together.”
Silk suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry secure a successor who has had “actual ambassadorial experience” — a qualification that many critics are quick to point out that Cook lacked.
He urged that Kerry appoint “a senior diplomat who knows what it is to deal not only with foreign governments but also with the the State Department’s ways and means.”
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