President Biden will nominate an at-large ambassador for international religious freedom “in the coming weeks,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told a human rights gathering in the District on Wednesday.
The post — whose mission is to “promote universal respect for freedom of religion or belief for all as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy” — has been vacant since January 20 of this year, when Ambassador Sam Brownback, a Trump appointee and former Kansas governor, left. The position is a creation of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
“We’re looking forward” to taking the step of submitting a nomination, Mr. Blinken told delegates to the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit. The event, which has drawn 850 participants to the Omni Shoreham hotel, is billed as a civil society-focused successor to the Trump Administration’s ministerial-level religious freedom gatherings, Mr. Brownback said last week.
Mr. Blinken, who did not name a specific candidate for the job, insisted global religious freedom was important to the Biden administration’s foreign policy.
“Religious freedom is a vital component of our diplomacy,” Mr. Blinken said via video link. “Every day, our team in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington along with American diplomats around the world work…to track threats to religious freedom, coordinate responses, and lift up solutions.”
Advocates said the announcement is encouraging.
“It’s very good news and implies the administration has an active and significant interest in international religious freedom and advocating for that,” said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He said the relatively swift announcement “contrasts with the Obama administration, for example, which I believe [took] at least a year and a half” before announcing its first nominee for the post.
That first Obama nominee, Amb. Suzan Johnson Cook, an American Baptist minister, was panned by some critics who said she had lacked expertise in international issues. Mr. Tooley said that if the Biden administration puts forth a nominee similarly unknown in religious freedom circles, “someone without a lot of experience, who doesn’t have a lot of influence … that obviously would be very counterproductive.”
An official at International Christian Concern lauded the announcement.
“The appointment of an ambassador to this position indicates that the Biden administration is serious about advancing religious freedom around the world,” said Matias Perttula, the group’s advocacy director. “The U.S. must lead on this issue, and the appointment of an effective, empowered individual to this position is critical in that effort.”
Katrina Lantos Swett, a former U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chairwoman, told The Washington Times last week she expected progress on the issue from Mr. Biden’s administration.
“President Biden is a man of very, very sincere personal faith,” Ms. Lantos Swett said. “I think that is something we will see permeate, and positively influence, the [international religious freedom] policy of this administration,” she added.