Despite His February Promise, Obama Still Hasn’t Filled Religious Freedom Post

By Patrick Goodenough | July 9, 2014 | 4:14 AM EDT

President Obama attends the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 6, 2014. (AP File Photo)

Update: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday the position of ambassador-at-large “is a priority for the administration and one that we intend to fill soon.” She said the U.S. “cares deeply about human rights issues, including freedom of religion, and that’s one of the reasons that we’re working hard to find the right person and fill it with the right person for the job.”

( – More than five months after President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast that he looked forward to nominating an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, he has yet to nominate anyone.

Over the ensuing period State Department spokeswomen have periodically agreed that the ambassador position is an important one, while saying that other officials from Secretary of State John Kerry down regularly bring up religious freedom issues in their interaction with foreign governments.

“You know how strongly we feel about having someone in that position,” department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday, as she confirmed that she had nothing to report on a nomination.

The ambassador-at-large post, created under the 1999 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) to lead the executive branch’s efforts to promote religious freedom abroad, has been vacant since October 2013.

The last person to hold the post, Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, served for 30 months. Before her first day in the post, May 16, 2011, the post was unfilled for the first 847 days of Obama’s first term. (It took 512 days for Obama to nominate Cook, and a further 335 to secure Senate confirmation.)

Obama told the National Prayer Breakfast gathering last February, “I look forward to nominating our next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to help lead these efforts” to promote religious freedom around the world.

U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Katrina Lantos Swett addresses a conference on human rights and democracy, in Warsaw, Poland in Oct. 2012. Then-U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Suzan Johnson Cook sits alongside her. (Photo: U.S. Mission to OSCE/Collin Peters)

More than two months later, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked if she had any update on the process.

“I don’t have an update. We obviously agree with folks out there on the need to fill the position,” she said. “It’s an incredibly important position. The White House and the State Department, we are actively working to nominate someone as soon as possible.”

Harf said department in the meantime had “a whole lot of folks” working on religious freedom issues.

Harf disagreed that the delay sent “the wrong signal” about the administration’s prioritizing of religious freedom.

“It’s something we take incredibly seriously,” she said. “We hope to fill it as soon as possible.”

A month later, the vacant post was raised by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), in a letter to Kerry urging intervention in the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a pregnant Sudanese Christian woman – the wife of a U.S. citizen – sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy.

The senators in their letter asked Kerry and Obama to fill the post of ambassador-at-large, “whose primary purpose is to monitor, prevent, and respond to this exact type of incident.”

Asked about the empty post at a daily press briefing on May 20, Psaki said, “Oftentimes there’s a process that is underway to find the right person, and certainly it’s something the secretary is committed to. I don’t have any prediction of the timing, but it is something we certainly will be filling.”

Seven weeks later – on Monday of this week – Psaki was asked again about the ambassador-at-large position, once again in the context of the Sudan apostasy case.

“You know how strongly we feel about having someone in that position,” she replied. “And obviously, there are a range of officials at the highest levels who’ve been involved in this case. But obviously, having more senior officials who can advocate in cases like these is vitally important.”

Psaki confirmed that she had no update on the nomination process.

President Clinton appointed the first ambassador-at-large under IRFA in 1999. Former World Vision chief Robert Seiple served for two years.

It took President Bush 250 days to nominate as Seiple’s successor John Hanford, a religious freedom advocate who as a congressional staffer had been involved in the IRFA’s drafting. After Senate confirmation, Hanford served from May 2002 until January 2009.

(Meriam Ibrahim, who gave birth to a daughter in prison in May, was released by court order on June 24. She remains in legal limbo, wanting to travel with her husband and children to the United States but being prevented by Sudanese authorities from leaving her home country.

Psaki on Monday confirmed that she has the necessary travel documents to allow Meriam and her family entry into the U.S.

“We remain in close touch with the Sudanese foreign ministry to ensure she and her family will be able to travel as quickly as possible,” she said. “But as of now, she remains in Sudan.” )

Also See:
Rep. Wolf: Int’l Religious Freedom Commission Gives ‘Unvarnished Truth’ About Allies, Foes

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow