A growing number of lawmakers, scholars and human rights groups in recent days have warned President Obama that he is sending a dangerous message to foreign governments by failing to appoint an Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom.
After a year, the position created by law in 1998 remains vacant. Lawmakers, many from the president's own political party, and foreign policy experts say the empty position sends the message that the issue of religious freedom is not important to the United States.
"The absence of senior level leadership in your administration on this critical issue is of grave and urgent concern," said a March 30 letter from a diverse group of scholars, policy thinkers and religious freedom activists organized by Freedom House.
Signers urged Obama to immediately fill the position. They also encouraged the president to elevate the ambassador's position so that the person reports directly to the Secretary of State, as do other ambassadors-at-large.
"Religious freedom is foundation to American democracy, our Constitution, and the long, nonpartisan history of American promotion of human rights," reads the letter. "Likewise, international human rights laws…stipulate robust commitments to 'freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.'"
The Freedom House letter followed a March 25, bipartisan letter by members of Congress that similarly emphasized the importance of the religious freedom position.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), co-chairs of the House's International Religious Freedom Caucus, along with 16 other members of the U.S. House signed the letter. They highlighted that millions of people who do not have the basic right of religious freedom "look to the United States for leadership."
"Our voice is critical for those who have none, which is why the need for an Ambassador is so urgent," the bipartisan group of lawmakers said.
Religious freedom, the members of Congress said, will lead to greater human freedom, economic prosperity, and security around the world.
A recent Pew Forum study revealed that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries where there are severe restrictions on religious freedom.
"Religious freedom – the right to believe, or not, and to live and act on the basis of belief – goes to the very heart of what it means to be human," writes Thomas Farr, former American diplomat and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, in a commentary posted on The Washington Post website. "To the extent we can succeed in reducing this kind of abuse, and promoting this kind of freedom, we are advancing social justice and human dignity."
Farr, like other foreign policy experts, say greater religious freedom in the world would improve U.S. national security. He said the idea of promoting religious freedom and understanding in the world is not "a fantasy of the Christian right," pointing to the diverse group of individuals, including liberal Democrats, who have supported it.
Regimes that are more democratic and that seek to provide for the "economic, social, intellectual, and religious well being" of its citizens "are far less likely to incubate, nourish and export religion-based terrorism," Farr contends.
Considering the many religious conflicts around the world, foreign policy experts highlight, it is imperative that the U.S. work with religious communities in its counterinsurgency strategy and appoint an Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom.