When the Obama administration began, the post of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom was vacant. This post, at the State Department, was established by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 because Congress wanted State, and the entire Executive Branch, to pay more attention to the issue of religious freedom. (The act also established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, of which I am a member.)
The Obama administration filled the post of Ambassador at Large–in April,2011, more than two years after the president came to office. That’s one good way to judge what priority White House has given to the issue. And it filled the post with someone who had literally no experience at all with international religious freedom problems and policy.
The Ambassador at Large post became vacant again in October, and one has to wonder how long it will take this time. As a Religion News Service article put it,
those who decry religious persecution in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere are wondering how long it’s going to take the White House to name a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom….“A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
There is no reason for delay. And recently, the administration acted with speed to appoint Eric Schwartz, dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota (and a former Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the National Security Council and former Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration) to the Commission, demonstrating that at least sometimes it can act fast and choose a superbly qualified candidate. One can only hope that the Schwartz appointment is a sign that the selection of an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom will not drag on.