President Obama has made a "positive first step" to fill the empty Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom post, said a Christian ministry serving persecuted believers.
Obama nominated Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, founder and president of the Wisdom Worldwide Center and senior pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City, on Tuesday for the position. The post has been empty since the start of the Obama administration despite pressure from religious freedom and human rights groups to fill it.
"Hopefully, the nomination of Dr. Johnson Cook is a positive first step that the Obama administration is serious about advancing freedom of religion for every person and denouncing violations of those rights," said Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA.
He added, "To date the administration has made several positive affirmations of global religious freedom, yet there has been little action demonstrating a commitment to those words."
Since January, Open Doors has been urging President Obama to appoint someone to the religious freedom post. In March, lawmakers, scholars, policy thinkers and religious activists urged the president in two separate letters to immediately fill the position. They warned that the empty post sends a dangerous message to foreign governments that the issue of religious freedom is not important to the administration and the country.
"Our voice is critical for those who have none, which is why the need for an Ambassador is so urgent," said the March 25 bipartisan letter signed by members of Congress.
The position of Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom was created by law in 1998 to monitor global religious persecution, recommend and implement policies and advise the U.S. State Department and the administration.
Religious freedom, the members of Congress asserted, will lead to greater human freedom, economic prosperity, and security around the world.
"It is so important to protect and promote those rights as freedom of religion is endangered in countries around the world," said Moeller.
He cited the Pew Research Center study last year that found 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries with high levels of restriction on religious freedom.
Open Doors USA launched a petition drive earlier this year to urge the president to appoint someone to the post. The campaign resulted in 8,000 signatures in two weeks and nearly 10,000 overall.
Lindsay Vessey, Open Doors USA director of advocacy, said on Wednesday that Cook has a strong domestic resume but does not appear to have international diplomatic experience. But the ministry is grateful for the move to fill the post and looks forward to getting to know Cook better, she added.
"Hopefully she will be willing to confront countries that need to be confronted," Vessey said.
The Open Doors advocacy director noted that Cook's name has been "floating around" in international religious freedom circles for months so the nomination was not a complete surprise.
Obama's nomination of Cook needs to be confirmed by the Senate.