U.S. Needs Religious Freedom Envoy, Faith Leaders say

Faith leaders and human rights groups are clamoring for President Obama to fill the cabinet position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, which remains vacant in his administration after more than a year in office.

In a March 30 open letter to Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the advocates, representing 30 mainline, evangelical, Muslim, Jewish, and Sikh organizations, wrote that "religious freedom is foundational to American democracy, our Constitution, and the long, nonpartisan history of American promotion of human rights" and that "the absence of senior level leadership in [the Obama] administration on this critical issue is of grave and urgent concern."

The group requested that a "person with advanced foreign policy experience and expertise on the right to religious freedom" be appointed to the position immediately, and that "responsible religious freedom" should be integrated into the foreign policy mainstream.

The group also asked that the ambassador's position be elevated to report directly to the Secretary of State, as other similar positions do.

"Echoing FDR's 'four freedoms' –in which freedom of belief was a central component – President Obama and Secretary Clinton have recently emphasized the importance of religious freedom as a foundation for democracy and human rights," said Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director at Freedom House, who organized the effort. "The administration now has an opportunity to affirm its support for the protection of religious freedom by filling the ambassadorship as quickly as possible with a well-qualified person."

A recent poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life states that 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries with a "high or very high" degree of restrictions on religion.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs recommended in February that the U.S. government make religion "an integral part of our foreign policy" and noted a "capabilities gap" in the religion field for U.S. foreign ministers.

"As America looks ahead, it is clear that religious actors will not only continue to present major challenges to our security, but provide enormous opportunities to create new alliances and forge new paths to peace and prosperity in many troubled areas of the world," the group's report said.

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