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Egyptians: Ahmed Ali/AP • Obama: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Illegal vacancy

With a key religious freedom leadership post vacant for two years, despite a law requiring it, the U.S. government is unprepared to deal with the issue in Egypt and around the world

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

In Egypt, before the protests, Christians lived under steady oppression: Permits to build a church took decades to win approval, and authorities would sometimes arrest converts. But in December the persecution escalated when an Islamic suicide bomber attacked a church in Alexandria, killing 22 and wounding 70. And now with the political uncertainty, Christians' fears are growing. "If Mubarak is ousted, we are done. The Christian population will be annihilated," said an Egyptian Christian living in Amman, Jordan, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. "Look what they did to us under Mubarak, imagine what they will do without him holding them back."

Foreign policy experts worry that if no other group fills the institutional vacuum that President Mubarak will leave, the Islamists will. And if the Muslim Brotherhood does move to establish an Islamic state, the Obama administration will be ill-prepared to fend off assaults on religious liberty. "Deer in the headlights," is how Tom Farr, the director of the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom under President Bush, described the U.S. government's disposition when religious actors take power.

The U.S. government is ill-prepared partly because the post of ambassador for international religious freedom has been vacant for two years-and that post is the only designated advocate in the U.S. government for the issue. The post has been vacant for the entire Obama administration after the president's nominee, New York pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, failed to make it out of committee in the last Congress.

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"When the stuff hits the fan, you want someone on the other side who you can call and have an open candid conversation, because you've built a relationship of trust," said Robert Seiple, President Clinton's ambassador for international religious freedom. The former CEO of World Vision was the first person to fill that post. "We don't have that. We haven't had that for a couple years." The post "hasn't been filled clean and simple as a statement of priority, or lack of priority," he added. He pointed out that envoys for other special interests, like Jews and Muslims, were appointed long ago. "They have to do something to reclaim the high ground here."

John Hanford, the religious freedom ambassador under President George W. Bush, says the vacancy has not been legal because the government hasn't been complying with the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, which established the position. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who originally introduced the IRFA, joined the critique of the empty post at a recent hearing. "Personnel is policy," he said.

The White House issued a statement in response to the criticisms, saying the president had offered "a well-qualified nominee for this position last Congress-a nomination that languished for some six months before the Senate adjourned." Then on Feb. 7 the administration renominated Cook for the post.

The immediate threats to religious liberty are not just in Egypt but also in Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan, where Islamist political groups are challenging the new government that formed at the beginning of February. "One thing I can assure you we're not doing is talking to Tunisia about issues like this-like Sharia law. This is the kind of thing we should be doing long before," said Farr, the former director of the religious freedom office.

The U.S. government's efforts to address religious freedom have floundered before now. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, establishing democracy was a priority. Religious freedom has not followed. Christians, a minority in Iraq, face fierce persecution and have fled the country in large numbers.

When Muslim terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 224 people and wounding more than 4,500, Seiple said that was a wake-up call to U.S. officials: Understanding religion needed to be more a part of the country's foreign policy. Seiple recalled that after the embassy bombings he opened the international religious freedom office's folder on Muslims, and it had one sheet of paper in it. "We didn't think of these things in religious terms," he said. "We were woefully behind the curve on this issue."

More than a decade of having a U.S. diplomat focused on this issue brought incremental progress. Hanford pointed to Vietnam, where he said his office's work resulted in the release of many religious prisoners, from Buddhists to Catholics. At the United States' urging, too, the Vietnamese government issued a decree banning the forced renunciation of faith, Hanford said. Now, even without an ambassador, the State Department has continued to work behind the scenes at the UN and has weakened support for defamation resolutions, which are essentially blasphemy laws.

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