While we Americans largely take our freedom to practice religion for granted, a recent report from the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of the world's people - that's about 4.7 billion people - live in countries with high levels of religious restrictions. All of us - believers, agnostics and atheists - have a stake in the protection of religious liberties. Because respect for human rights is such a reliable measure of the trustworthiness of nations, it is in our interest to see that they are protected. When President Obama fills the vacant position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, he should make the changes to the office needed to make the appointee's voice heard by those who need to listen.
While the headlines concerning the just-completed parliamentary elections in Iraq have been largely positive, the country's Christian minority has faced a vicious and persistent undercurrent of religiously based persecution. About 275 Christians have been murdered by Islamists since 2003, many of the victims in Mosul, in an attempt to cleanse the "Christian triangle" of Christians. The recent violence has caused hundreds more Christian families to flee.
Recently, militants armed with guns and grenades in northwestern Pakistan executed six staff members of the international relief agency World Vision and wounded seven others. A machete-wielding Muslim mob in Nigeria slaughtered between 200 and 500 Christians near Jos. Christian-Muslim clashes have intensified in the Jos area since the first of the year. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust settled in a Sweden that extended open arms to refugees. Two generations later, the Jews of Malmo are leaving en masse because of escalating anti-Semitic acts by Islamists - and the unwillingness of the city fathers to protect them. Baha'is have long been under siege in Iran; Muslims are in peril in parts of India. Hindu temples are razed in Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Our nation's laudable heritage of religious freedom is vital not only to the United States, but to the peaceful development of the entire world. Robert A. Seiple, this nation's first ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and former president of World Vision, references "Thomas Jefferson's notion that religious freedom is the first freedom, for where we find religious freedom, we also find the freedom of association, the freedom of speech, certainly the freedom to believe, and many times, the freedom of the press. Religious freedom is a fundamental strand of the fabric of American life."
"Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together," President Obama said during his much-discussed Cairo speech last June. "We must always examine the ways in which we protect it."
The president is about to take an important step to protect religious liberty and support and extend our nation's heritage of freedom. He is about to appoint a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
The position was created in 1998, during the Clinton administration, by the International Religious Freedom Act. The act empowers an ambassador, appointed by the President, to monitor religious persecution around the globe, recommend and implement policies and advise the U.S. State Department.
We earnestly hope that this appointee, whoever she or he is, possesses a proven track record of commitment to international religious freedom. This key figure will need to have diplomatic experience, an understanding of the role of religious liberty in the formation of civil society, an openness to work with all nongovernmental organizations already actively promoting religious freedom and the mandate courage to confront and call out all the violators, among friends and foes alike. This diplomat must have direct access to the policymakers and implementers at the State Department, answering directly to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rather than an assistant secretary of state. Answering to an underling, as the ambassador has done in the past, sends a signal to all that the office is not regarded with the proper seriousness.
International religious freedom experts Thomas F. Farr and Dennis R. Hoover offered policy recommendations to the president in their report "The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy," as well as insights on how to better integrate international religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy. We urge the president to act on these ideas without delay.
Several prior administrations - both Democratic and Republican - made human rights a keystone of U.S. foreign policy, sometimes over the objection of allies to whom they were not as pressing a concern. That policy paid off well for Americans. It helped bring down the Iron Curtain, defanging the threat of communism. Religious liberties today must remain a key component of the unfinished struggle for human rights and dignity around the world. The president should jump-start the next step in America's leadership position on international human rights by appointing the right person to a strengthened office of religious liberty.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of interfaith affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Carl Moeller is president of Open Doors USA.