- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

The State Department's religious-liberty office will issue its annual Sept. 1 report despite a one-year vacancy in its top post, but human rights advocates say the absence has slowed their work.

"The report is on schedule for sure," a State Department spokesman said. "They are not sitting on their thumbs."

Although there is no U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to oversee the office and staff, "They've got plenty to do," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In addition, the Bush administration has not named its three nominees to an independent 10-member panel on religious liberty.

"The White House is close to wrapping up many nominations, so an ambassador and the three commissioners will come out soon," said a congressional staff member.

Still, the staffer said, "One can say they are very late."

Created by Congress in 1998, the ambassador post was filled the next year by Robert Seiple, whose two-year stint shepherded through the first two mandated reports on religious-freedom records in 194 countries.

The ambassador makes official recommendations to the secretary of state on the possible use of sanctions detailed in the 1998 law to penalize the worst-case countries.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, now operating as a six-member quorum, has had to delay setting up hearings, fact-finding trips and investigations, said commission spokesman Lawrence Goodrich.

Both parties in Congress plus the administration name three members to the panel and the ambassador may cast a 10th vote on panel decisions. Although there are currently only six members, the commission is scheduled to meet by conference call this week.

"We want to have everyone included for the major decisions, and those major-decision points are looming," he said. "We and the office at State have sorely missed someone in that slot."

Names of possible nominees are floating around Washington, but no one in the administration, on the government panels or in human rights groups has confirmed anything. "The White House will comment on personnel assignments when they are made," said Ken Lisaius, White House spokesman.

By May 1, the commission also must produce its mandated annual report on religious liberty, which it says can criticize countries more directly and vigorously than State Department diplomats can.

Still, the administration's ambassador is best positioned to publicize religious liberty issues and can go directly to the secretary of state, said Nina Shea of Freedom House, a Republican appointee to the commission.

"The job is critical," she said. "An ambassador raises the profile, and supersedes even the human rights bureau" at the State Department.

The next ambassador will come to prominence amid a nearly five-year-old religious-liberty movement that has united disparate groups, but also prompted clashes over strategy.

"I'm a believer in the short list with serious policy recommendations" for U.S. action, Miss Shea said.

Others in Washington have emphasized that a long list of religious-liberty issues need U.S. attention, and still others say one "worst" country alone should bear the brunt of American might.

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