- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2011


President Obama this week renominated a prominent Christian pastor to serve as ambassador for international religious freedom in a move that reignited a debate over whether she is qualified for the high-profile position that has been vacant for two years.

Mr. Obama selected the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook in June, but her appointment stalled in the Senate. Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, delayed her nomination because of concerns over her “lack of international diplomacy experience,” his spokesman, Wesley Denton, said at the time.

The president renominated her on Monday, and critics immediately began questioning her experience again.

“Now more than ever, this post needs someone who has a handle on Islam, foreign policy and other religious traditions,” said Anthea Butler, as associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The people’s uprising in Egypt is a prime example why this ambassadorship needs someone who is more knowledgeable about religious traditions, diplomacy and foreign policy experience. President Obama’s insistence on Cook may be a loyalist move, but one that will come back to haunt him in the long run.”

Thomas F. Farr, a former director of the State Department’s office of international religious freedom, did not even wait for Mr. Obama to renominate her.

In January, Mr. Farr sent associates an e-mail complaining that the president’s failure to fill the position since the resignation of John V. Hanford III in 2009 displayed “utter indifference to reinvigorating U.S. international religious freedom policy.”

He urged activists to put pressure on the White House to nominate a better-qualified candidate “to address more effectively, for example, the increasing persecution of Christians in the Middle East, or the continued growth of Islamist extremism.”

Mr. Obama issued a one-line press release Monday to announce Mrs. Cook’s renomination. He made no mention of any of her qualifications for the position.

In June, however, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Mrs. Cook as an “experienced religious leader with a passion for human rights and an impressive record of public service.”

“President Obama could not have found a more fitting choice for this important position,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Cook served 13 years as pastor of the Mariners’ Temple Baptist Church in New York and later founded the Bronx Christian Fellowship Church. She retired in 2009.

Mr. DeMint, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not block her nomination. He placed a one-day hold on the appointment process after asking for Mrs. Cook to answer several questions on religious freedom issues.

The Democratic leadership failed to bring her nomination to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote before the end of the lame-duck session of Congress in December, and Mr. Obama excluded her from a list of ambassadors he picked in a recess appointment last month.

Mr. DeMint has not commented on Mrs. Cook’s latest nomination.

Congress created the ambassadorship with the 1988 International Religious Freedom Act, which also established the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or e-mail jmorrison@washington times.com.

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