WASHINGTON-The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for President Obama's nominee for ambassador for international religious freedom Tuesday-take two. The nominee, New York pastor Suzan Johnson Cook, failed to make it past her first confirmation hearing back in November, with the committee letting her nomination expire at the end of the congressional session. But the vacancy has become more problematic as religious freedom issues have taken center stage in the crises in the Middle East (see "Illegal vacancy," Feb. 26, 2011).
The White House chided the Senate at the beginning of the year for allowing a "well-qualified nominee" to languish, though it took President Obama a year and a half to nominate Cook in the first place. He nominated her again in February, despite concerns from religious freedom advocates that she lacks experience in the area of international religious freedom.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has expressed reservations about her qualifications, too. At Tuesday's hearing he said to her, "There are a number of indications that international religious freedom is not your passion nor your area of particular expertise. Having an ambassador that is well respected and prepared to address the challenges we face today is important to me and vital to our country."
But Cook is likely to win confirmation this time. If confirmed she'll only have the remainder of Obama's term to serve, about a year and a half, so most advocates at this point would rather see someone serving in this capacity than derail her confirmation, which would probably result in the post remaining empty through the rest of Obama's term.
At her first hearing, Cook was rushed through with two other presidential nominees, and answered only one question. This time the committee took her nomination more seriously: She had a stand-alone hearing, and senators spent about 45 minutes asking her specific questions about religious freedom.
The questions, from both sides of the aisle, centered on the urgency of the present situation in the Middle East with regard to religious freedom.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., asked Cook about protecting religious minorities in the Middle East amid all the upheaval, specifically Coptic Christians who have been under attack in Egypt. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked how she would protect Iraqi Christians, who have been fleeing the country in large numbers. Lee also inquired about reforming the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, and about the two recent assassinations linked to that effort, to which Cook said she hopes the country will find "a new champion for religious freedom."
DeMint mentioned the plight of Afghan Christian Sayed Musa, who was abused and sentenced to death for his faith but was released at the last moment after international pressure (see "Freed at last," Feb. 24, 2011).
Cook said she shared his concern but didn't give any specifics about what she would do as ambassador. To most questions Cook said she would work with U.S. embassies, civil society, nongovernmental organizations, and international partners.
"There are times situationally when public pressure and headlines are important," she said. "There are times, like with Sayed Mossa, where you have to work more quietly." A Senate staffer after the hearing described her answers as "pretty generic."
DeMint distilled the current problem for the United States' efforts on behalf of religious freedom: "It's not just Afghanistan, it's Iraq, it's other places. We're faced with governments we've helped install who are not supporting religious freedom." He urged Cook to work to change the "culture" at the U.S. State Department, so the agency cares more about religious freedom issues: "When pressed, they tend to pat you on the head, and I'm speaking of my head, and say, 'That's important rhetorically, but frankly it's too messy to compromise a political or economic relationship.'"