Mideast Protests, Shahbaz Bhatti on Mind of Obama's Religious Freedom Nominee

WASHINGTON – President Obama's nominee for the top religious freedom post paid tribute to Pakistan's murdered minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, and acknowledged the challenges and opportunities presented by the current uprisings in the Middle East during a religious liberty function Tuesday evening.

Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, nominated to be the Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom, began her speech at the 9th annual Religious Liberty Dinner by recounting the murder of religious freedom champion Bhatti last month by Taliban militants.

She noted that Bhatti did not shrink back from advocating for religious freedom for Pakistan's minorities even in the face of danger.

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"In the last two centuries, more people have died for their faith than the other 19 centuries combined," noted Cook, who also pointed to a 2009 Pew Research Center report that found two out of three people in the world live in countries with high levels of restrictions on religion.

"As Americans, without any apologies whatsoever, we must repeat the message (religious freedom) over and over and over again to the world ... [and] hold up international documents that establish this right."

Cook, who has pastored two churches in New York City, has been nominated twice by President Obama to fill the position of Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom and awaits Senate approval for the appointment. She had served as a domestic policy adviser under President Bill Clinton.

During her speech at Tuesday’s dinner, mainly sponsored by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the former pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Church in New York also addressed the great challenges and opportunities in the Middle East where uprisings are resulting in regime changes.

"The frontline demands strategic action, not emotional or reactionary tactics, but strategic, prayerful action," she said. "Either we deal with it now or fundamentalist extremists can fill the power vacuums where regions have lacked democratic institutions."

The role of the religious freedom ambassador, she said, includes communicating effectively and "with conviction" the U.S. value of religious freedom to the world while understanding foreign perceptions; forging relationships with religious leaders and communities in the world that can influence government leaders in countries the U.S. seeks to impact; and drawing from American history of the struggle for religious freedom to shape diplomacy.

"Not only do I live with a passion and a mission of spreading the word of religious freedom, but also as an African-American, celebrate the experience where the members of our diaspora sing, 'God of our weary years, God of our silent tears. Thou who has by Thy might, Led us into the Light. Keep us forever on the path, we pray,'" said Cook as she recited what has been called "The Negro National Hymn."

Cook was the first woman to be elected president of the Hampton University Ministers' Conference, the nation's largest African-American clergy organization.

At the end of the night, Knox Thames, director of policy and research at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, was invited to give a special tribute to the late Bhatti. Thames was a friend of Bhatti and had helped him connect with Washington lawmakers during the Pakistani minister's three trips to Washington, D.C.

"He was ready to die for the cause of helping his country, but he didn't want to die," said an emotional Thames. "He squeezed every ounce out of being a religious freedom advocate on the federal cabinet before being murdered by the Pakistan Taliban."

Bhatti was the first and only Christian to be a member of the Pakistani president's cabinet.

Thames called for religious freedom advocates to put pressure on the U.S. government to keep the issue of reforming Pakistan's blasphemy laws on the "front burner" of bilateral relations.

"We can best remember Shahbaz by making his death matter," concluded Thames.

Bhatti was killed for trying to change the country's blasphemy laws. He headed the committee to amend the laws at the time of his assassination.

Galen Carey, director of government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, who attended the religious liberty event, talked afterwards about the importance of religious freedom.

"It is the first freedom and it is one that comes directly from God. As one of the speakers said, it is not something that government grants but that God grants and government recognizes and protects," said Carey. "It is fundamental to all the other freedoms. It is the right that gives people the right to live as God called them to."

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