One Year Later, Obama Administration’s Top Religious Freedom Post Still Vacant
“President Obama has not yet named an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom,” a State Department press officer confirmed by phone late Wednesday. She referred further queries to the White House, where attempts to get comment were unsuccessful.
The Christian advocacy organization Open Doors USA launched a petition Wednesday urging Obama to appoint an ambassador immediately, saying that leaving the position unfilled violated U.S. law.
“By not having an ambassador-at-large for the past 12 months, the U.S. has failed to demonstrate the importance of religious freedom,” said advocacy director Lindsay Vessey.
“And considering the many religious conflicts around the world and the many Christians and people of other faiths who are persecuted for their beliefs, it is disappointing that President Obama has failed to fill this position,” she added.
The petition says it is imperative that the U.S. has an ambassador-at-large and urges the president to appoint, as quickly as possible, “an individual with a proven history of commitment to the promotion of international religious freedom.”
Religious freedom campaigners have noted a surge in incidents of violence against Christians in particular over the past two months.
Barnabas Fund, a charity helping Christians in Islamic societies, drew attention to attacks – including fatal shootings, bombings, assaults, arson attacks, threats and arrests – in Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Algeria, Egypt, Malaysia and, most recently, Nigeria, where clashes between Muslims and Christians this week have reportedly cost several hundred lives.
Even though the Christmas and New Year season often sees anti-Christian violence in parts of the world, Barnabas Fund international director Patrick Sookhdeo said he was shocked by the scale and widespread nature of the recent incidents.
“I cannot remember such a spate of attacks on our brothers and sisters happening in my lifetime,” he said Wednesday.
‘Prolonged vacancy is a disadvantage’
The U.S. ambassador-at-large post is a requirement of a landmark 1998 law that made the advancement of religious freedom around the world a goal of U.S. diplomacy.
The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) established an international religious freedom office within the State Department, headed by an ambassador-at-large. It also set up a watchdog an independent, bipartisan expert advisory body, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
IRFA mandates an annual State Department report on international religious freedom. The reports assess the state of religious freedom around the world, publicly designate “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for egregious violations, and detail measures to prod offending governments to improve their records.
In the absence of an ambassador-at-large, the 2009 report was presented last October by the newly-confirmed assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, Michael Posner, under whose department the religious freedom office falls.
Obama’s wait in nominating an ambassador is not unprecedented. President Bush named his nominee, John V. Hanford, on Sept. 26, 2001, 249 days after taking office. After Senate confirmation Hanford – who as a staffer for Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) had played a key role in authoring the IRFA – was eventually sworn in the following May.
(Hanford’s predecessor, former World Vision chief Robert Seiple, was named by President Clinton in Jan. 1999, two months after IRFA was signed into law. Confirmed by the Senate in March 1999, he served until stepping down in Sept. 2000.)
USCIRF acting executive director Knox Thames said Wednesday night that the commission has raised concerns with the administration and State Department about the delay in filling the post.
“Considering that this position is, by law, to be the principle adviser to the president and the secretary of state on religious freedom, the prolonged vacancy leaves U.S. religious freedom promotion at a disadvantage,” he said.
Knox said staff at the State Department’s international religious freedom office “have done well to continue to advocate during the interregnum, but the seating of an ambassador soon would do much to empower their work.”
Asked whether the empty post may be seen to be sending a message that religious freedom is not a priority issue for the administration, he said “the vacancy does run the risk of giving an impression that religious freedom is not a high priority for the United States.”
“However, this is offset to some extent by the high profile reference to religious freedom in President Obama’s Cairo speech last year.”
(Religious freedom was one of six key themes in Obama’s address aimed at Muslims last June. He said Islam had “a proud tradition of tolerance” but that some Muslims had “a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith.” He cited Christian Copts in Egypt and Maronites in Lebanon and addressed Sunni-Shia tensions too. Obama said it was also “important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit – for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear.”)
Relations between the State Department and USCIRF have not always been smooth in the years since IRFA came into effect.
Each year the advisory watchdog has recommended that certain countries be designated CPCs, and each year the administration has made its own determination, naming some, but not all, of the countries the commission wants on the list of violators.
Currently listed are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan as CPCs. The USCIRF wants another five countries added – Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
The USCIRF has also differed with the State Department – in this and previous administrations – over actions taken against CPCs. IFRA provides for steps against violators including sanctions, but renewable waivers are permitted and only one CPC that was not under pre-existing rights-related sanctions, Eritrea, has been targeted.
Saudi Arabia and Vietnam have been particular points of contention between the department and the commission.
The State Department eventually added Saudi Arabia to the CPC list in 2004 after overruling the USCIRF’s recommendations to do so for four consecutive years. Sanctions have been waived ever since, however, despite the commission’s repeated urging for action against the Wahhabi-ruled kingdom.
In its most recent call to that effect, commission chairman Leonard Leo said last October said lifting the waiver “would demonstrate that the Obama administration cares about this issue,” and provide leverage to press the Saudis to improve.
After several years of USCIRF urging, Vietnam was eventually designated a CPC in 2004, but the following year the communist government signed an agreement with the U.S. undertaking to address concerns, and it was removed from the list in late 2006.
Although the State Department reported “significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom” the commission argued that Vietnam’s removal from the list was premature, and has been pressing for its relisting ever since.
A USCIRF delegation traveled to Vietnam in last May and reported what vice-chairman Michael Cromartie described as “clear evidence of severe religious freedom restrictions.”
“No more excuses can be made by the administration for not designating Vietnam as a CPC,” he said in October.