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.
"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.
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."