March 29, 2011

Lugar Says U.S. Must be Advocate for Religious Freedom

Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made the following statement today at a Committee nomination hearing:

The Foreign Relations Committee again considers the nomination of Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook to serve as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.  If confirmed, the nominee would serve as principle advisor to the President and Secretary of State on religious liberty issues.  Her responsibilities would include submitting the annual report on the state of religious freedom to Congress, engaging other nations on religious freedom issues, and recommending appropriate responses to violations of religious liberty.

Before Dr. Cook’s hearing in November, I submitted 37 questions for the record to her regarding the organization and mission of the Office of International Religious Freedom, as well as countries of particular concern, such as Burma, China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Sudan.  I appreciate Dr. Cook’s answers to these questions, as well as several more that I have submitted since that time.  Dr. Cook’s answers are posted on my website for members and the public to review.

During the last decade, the Office of International Religious Freedom has engaged numerous countries on ways to improve their religious freedom practices.  For example, an agreement negotiated with Vietnam involved new laws on religion, the release of dozens of religious prisoners, and the reopening of hundreds of places of worship.  The Office worked extensively in Saudi Arabia to remove intolerant teachings from school books and to advocate for the right of religious minorities to hold meetings.  Advances of this type require painstaking diplomacy, but I believe it is important for the United States government to be seen unmistakably as an advocate for religious freedom.

Dr. Cook, if confirmed, will have a difficult challenge ahead of her.  The Administration waited a year and a half before making this appointment, leaving the IRF Office without the leadership and institutional strength that comes with an Ambassador.  Inevitably, this was perceived as a signal that the Administration did not place a high priority on the role of the IRF Ambassador.  At the end of the last Congress, this nomination was delayed further when the nominee did not get a vote in the Senate.

I join many members of Congress who believe that the IRF Office has a vital role to play in U.S. foreign policy.   The office has shown that it can produce excellent results if it enjoys institutional backing from the State Department and the White House.

It is especially important that Dr. Cook has access to the Secretary of State and other top decision makers; that she has hiring and supervisory authority over her staff; that the staff is allowed to focus on the core mission of international religious freedom; and that the Office retains independence and has sufficient operating funds. 

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