Why America Needs an Ambassador for Religious Liberty

On March 2, gunmen unleashed 50 rounds of bullets into Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister of Minority Affairs. A Roman Catholic and the only Christian in the Pakistani Cabinet, Bhatti was assassinated by the Taliban and al Qaeda because of his opposition to Pakistan's arbitrary and egregious blasphemy law. The U.S. Government's response regarding this tragedy: an impotent statement expressing "sadness and condemnation."

On Jan. 1, more than 20 Coptic Christians in Egypt were executed when unknown offenders bombed a church in Alexandria.

On Oct. 31, 58 Iraqi Christians were killed and 78 were left wounded after a group of alleged al Qaeda linked radicals took control of a church in Baghdad during evening mass.

Currently, there are more than 3,000 Christians imprisoned in Eritrea. Many are kept in metal shipping containers, military barracks and prison cells under inhumane conditions. Many Christians have been paralyzed or killed in prison due to torture and lack of medical attention. Imprisoned believers are given minimal food and water. Eritrean Christians have remained imprisoned for years without ever having been convicted for any crime before a court of law. Eritrea is seldom accessible by foreign media or the international community, therefore most cases of persecution are unknown.

And the list of persecution of religious minorities around the globe goes on.

Why has America's response to such a reality been so ineffectual? Because there is no Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in the Administration to coordinate America's actions and statements against such atrocities.

In October 1998, the United States Congress succeeded in doing something no legislative body in history had ever accomplished. In a unanimous vote, our Congress enshrined in American law the protection and promotion of the most fundamental of rights. In doing so, Congress recognized the overwhelming need to stand for those who face tyranny and repression due to their religious identity.

Unlike any other country in the world, the United States put its money where its mouth is on defense of fundamental rights by establishing in the State Department an Office of International Religious Freedom. This office would be headed by an Ambassador at Large, tasked with monitoring and combating religious discrimination and persecution around the globe.

Unfortunately, to date this position has remained unfilled under the Obama Administration. Last June, President Obama nominated Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook for the position, but her confirmation was put on a hold by Senator Jim DeMint, the Tea Party wunderkind. But on Feb. 7, President Obama renominated Dr. Cook for the position.

Why does it matter if Dr. Cook is confirmed? Nearly 1 billion people face significant discrimination and persecution because of their religious identity. To bring it closer to home, on any given day more than three times the population of the United States is potentially threatened or even killed because of the way they choose to pray, or not to pray. According to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, "Global Restrictions on Religion," "nearly 70 percent of the world's 6.8 billion people live in countries with high restrictions on religion, the brunt of which often falls on religious minorities."

Nearly 1 billion people need a voice -- a voice the Obama Administration thus far has not provided and since the president made a nomination, the Senate has put on hold. And Suzan Johnson Cook is that voice.

Senator DeMint and some other detractors have argued that Dr. Cook lacks the experience to be Ambassador at Large, a charge ironic from a community that chose Sarah Palin to be their Vice Presidential nominee. If Jim DeMint can argue coherently and persuasively on the Senate floor that Suzan Johnson Cook is less qualified to be Ambassador at Large than Sarah Palin was to be Vice President, then I guarantee that I will remain stoically silent for the rest of the confirmation process.

But more realistically speaking, Dr. Cook has an immense amount of experience, background, understanding and humility that enables her to be a voice for the voiceless like no other at this time. Religious liberty needs a rock star advocate, a prophetic voice who will call us all to arms to stand in mercy and solidarity for those suffering around the world. Religious liberty does not need a diplomat; we need an advocate and a missionary. We need a champion. We need Suzan Johnson Cook.

From Egypt to Pakistan, from Iraq to France, from Venezuela to Russia, from Eritrea to Belgium, from China to Belarus, the world is devolving into an ever-darker reality regarding human rights and religious freedom. The United States cannot remain silent any longer on the degradation of fundamental rights. We must take a stand and be the shining city on a hill for all who seek liberty and justice. We must protect the rights of all people to believe according to the dictates of their hearts, their minds and their consciences. The United States needs Suzan Johnson Cook to be our voice for the voiceless, our champion for human dignity, our Ambassador for religious liberty.