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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Office politics

Government | A longtime vacancy in the State Department reflects low priority given to international religious freedom

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

WASHINGTON-The seventh floor of the State Department in Foggy Bottom: That's where you want your office to be if you want to be close to the secretary of state.

The State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) is not on the seventh floor-it is five floors lower. Between the secretary of state and the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom lie several officials: The deputy secretary of state, the undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, and the assistant secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

As soporific as the bureaucratic family tree is, it says a lot about the U.S. government's policy priorities.

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The IRF office has not had a prominent position at the agency since Congress created it under the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration did little to elevate it. The office has never been included in the secretary's daily meetings with her senior staff. The religious freedom ambassador under Bush, John Hanford, asked to be included in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's meetings. He was refused.

"Maybe it's something Clinton and Bush got wrong, and Obama has the chance to make better," said Lindsay Vessey, advocacy director from Open Doors USA, a Christian group intimately involved in these issues. "It's an opportunity."

Religious freedom advocates like Vessey are anxious about this administration's attention to the issue because President Obama hasn't appointed an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. An ambassador, depending on who he or she is, would be able to raise the profile of the issue and perhaps put it before the secretary more often.

Bush named his ambassador, John Hanford, nine months after he took office, and Clinton named an ambassador, Bob Seiple, almost immediately after Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 establishing the office. The ambassador, according to the act, "shall be a principal adviser to the President and the Secretary of State regarding matters affecting religious freedom abroad," helping the secretary in drafting the annual reports regarding religious freedom. But in practice, since the office is removed from the secretary's senior circles, the ambassador is in a rather toothless position.

"The result is that no one takes them seriously," Vessey speculated. "When people are approached for the position they say, 'Well, I could do more where I'm currently at, on the outside.' At least the people who are really qualified."

Tom Farr, director of the office under Bush, said since the 1998 act, the State Department has been "trying to stave off the law. . . . The State Department never liked it. It buried it."

Peter Kovach, the current director of the IRF office and a 30-year foreign service veteran, would disagree. "We're alive and well and have a front office that cares," he told me, referencing his boss, Assistant Secretary of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, who is part of Clinton's daily meetings. "I don't think there's a 'check that box' mentality. . . . Our department has not been silent on these issues."

Kovach credits the IRF office with getting religious freedom into major speeches in this administration. Behind the scenes, he said, the office is constantly lobbying: getting more "no" votes on the defamation of religions resolutions (for which outside groups have applauded the agency), alerting bureaus abroad about religious freedom violations, and strengthening training for foreign service officers on religious freedom issues.

"Eventually there will be an ambassador," Kovach said. "We all have a good understanding of the potential that brings."

Finding someone qualified could be the central problem. The two names in the rumor mill for the position have little or no experience in international religious freedom. One, Suzan Johnson Cook, is a pastor in New York City with no international religious freedom experience; she was a fellow in the Clinton White House. Another name that has bounced around is Leah Daughtry, another pastor who was the head of faith outreach at the Democratic National Committee under Howard Dean. Pastors, Vessey said, "can't survive in that environment."

But even the religious freedom community has few names to offer. "We have not been able to come up with a solid candidate," said Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign, another Christian group that advocates for religious freedom. "I have not seen one name floated that I'm enthusiastic about." Farr, the former director of the IRF office, suggested others: Knox Thames, who just stepped down as director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or Chris Seiple, the son of the first IRF ambassador and former head of World Vision, Bob Seiple.

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