- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thirty religious leaders have sent a letter to the Obama administration asking the president why he has not appointed an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom after almost 15 months in office.

The letter, dated Match 30, requests that a person with advanced foreign-policy experience and expertise be named along with the announcement of a government strategy for promoting religious freedom, which is increasingly under attack around the world. It also asks that this official have expertise in religion.

“President Obama has said some fine words about religious freedom, but getting an ambassador in place is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, one of the signers and the former director of the State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom as well as a senior fellow at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University.

The position of ambassador-at-large is a State Department post that came into being in 1998, when Congress passed a law mandating the position as a way of making religious liberty around the world part of American foreign policy.

When contacted by The Washington Times about the letter, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said the president “remains committed to filling this position with the most qualified candidate.”

The first such ambassador was Robert A. Seiple, who had been president of World Vision, an evangelical relief and development agency. Mr. Farr served as deputy under Mr. Seiple, who was succeeded by John Hanford, a former staffer with Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican.

The George W. Bush administration took 19 months to appoint Mr. Hanford, according to Mr. Farr, who wrote at length about the history of the position in his 2008 book “World of Faith and Freedom.” The Bush administration, he wrote, downgraded the position below the level of other senior staff, with the result that Mr. Hanford repeatedly was left out of important decisions involving U.S. policy on religious freedom.

President Obama’s landmark speech to the Muslim world, delivered in June in Cairo, makes it even more necessary, Mr. Farr says, that the position be filled quickly. Signatories to the letter include various academics; religious-freedom activists; and Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh leaders. A copy is posted at www.freedomhouse.org.

“For religious freedom to be truly a serious objective for U.S. foreign policy, there needs to be a personality and preferably a forceful personality behind it,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a signatory to the letter. “The longer the position is left vacant, the less serious[ly] religious freedom is treated as a goal in U.S. foreign policy.”

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