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Illegal vacancy

"Illegal vacancy" Continued...

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

But one of the drafters of the International Religious Freedom Act, Anne Huiskes, who was a staffer to Rep. Wolf, said she's been disappointed with how the issue has "dropped off the screen" since the act passed. She lives in Portland, Ore., now, and scans the news, searching for statements from the State Department on religious freedom issues. "I never hear anything from that office on anything," she told me, and said that was the case under the Bush administration, too. But she noted she hasn't heard much from Christian leaders on the subject, either.

Originally, when Huiskes helped draft the law on the House side, the U.S. government's religious freedom point-­person was supposed to be a special adviser in the White House, not an ambassador at the State Department, but that changed when Congress finalized the bill. She doesn't think having an ambassador instead of a presidential adviser is a mistake, but she said the original plan might have circumvented the maze of State Department bureaucracy. Indeed, when I asked the State Department for a comment for this article, the office took three days to obtain clearance for a statement essentially saying they were still working hard on religious freedom issues. When Seiple first became ambassador in the Clinton administration, he said he wrote an op-ed on the importance of religious freedom: It had to be approved by 51 people. Once it got through, he said it was a "limpy wimpy rag. Who wants to work in that kind of environment?"

The act ordered that the ambassador would be a "principal adviser" to the Secretary of State, but more recently the position has had most of its teeth knocked out: The ambassador for international religious freedom is no longer in charge of the Office of Religious Freedom staff, "the kiss of death to effectiveness," Hanford said. And several intermediary assistant and deputy secretaries keep the ambassador at arm's length from the secretary. Hanford is convinced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally considers this an important issue. When she was first lady, Hanford said he asked her to raise a "sensitive religious issue" with a Muslim leader, and she did. Hanford wouldn't criticize President Obama for the lengthy vacancy, but he did say, "The key is to have a president who values this issue. I don't know if there will ever again be a president like George W. Bush who places such a high personal priority on religious freedom."

Obama nominated Suzan Johnson Cook for the post in June 2010, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee didn't hold a confirmation hearing for her until November, right in the midst of the START treaty debate. Only one senator asked her a question, though she had no experience in international religious freedom. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., put a one-day hold on her in the committee because of his concerns about the "truncated" hearing, but neither Senate Democrats nor the administration apparently sought to address his concerns before the end of the Senate session, when her nomination expired.

"She has no idea what she's in for at Foggy Bottom," Farr wrote in an email after Cook was renominated. Still, Farr has said her intelligence and her friendship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are important qualifi­cations for the office. Others in the religious freedom community, like Open Doors USA, have vowed to do what they can to help Cook be an effective ambassador if she is confirmed. "Yes, she's an unknown commodity but I prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt," Hanford said.

But the post itself isn't the central point, added Huiskes: "The bigger problem is that [religious freedom] doesn't get reflected in U.S. foreign policy directly."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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