In a letter Tuesday (July 15), Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), called on Obama to act "without further delay" to fill the ambassador-at-large position, which has been vacant since October of last year. He recommended the president consider nominating a Republican, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, to the post.
While "many skilled diplomats and leaders" are qualified for the ambassadorship, Wolf "stands out among them with experience, credibility, competence, and a passion for this issue," Moore wrote.
Wolf, who is not running for re-election to the House of Representatives this year, is widely considered Congress' leading advocate for global religious liberty. Wolf, 75, will retire at the end of this term after serving 34 years as a congressman from northern Virginia.
In his letter to the president, Moore described Wolf as "a tireless and unparalleled advocate for persecuted religious minorities. No one has done more in fighting for human rights and the protection of religious minorities ."
The ERLC president told Obama nominating someone from outside his party would send a valuable message.
"I think this move across the aisle, of a Republican ambassador serving a Democratic president, would be a signal to the American people that international religious freedom should be of concern to all Americans, regardless of political party or political ideology," Moore wrote. " would be a signal to the world that passion for human rights is of key importance to the United States of America."
Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the ambassador-at-large nine months ago.
The failure to replace Cook has discouraged religious liberty advocates from both major political parties, Moore told the president. Obama's failure to name an ambassador-at-large for more than two years at the start of his first term had the same effect, Moore said.
"The continual delay of a nomination communicates an indifference to the cause of religious freedom around the world on the part of the United States," he said.
Moore's letter proposing the congressman's nomination came less than a week after victories for two pieces of legislation Wolf has championed.
The Senate approved without opposition July 10 a bill designed to help protect adherents of minority faiths in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Syria. The measure would authorize presidential appointment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Near East and South Central Asia.
Christians and adherents of other religious faiths increasingly are targets of repression and violence in countries in both the Near East -- also known as the Middle East -- and South Central Asia. The existence of entire religious movements is threatened in some areas, most notably Egypt and Iraq.
The House overwhelmingly passed its version of the legislation in September with a 402-22 roll call, but two conservative Republicans -- Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah -- placed holds on the bill that prevented the opportunity for a floor vote on the Senate version under the chamber's rules. Coburn, who expressed concern that the envoy position would duplicate that of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and Lee eventually removed their holds, enabling a Senate vote.
The ERLC's Moore wrote Coburn and Lee in March to ask them to lift their holds.
"While it has taken longer than I hoped, I am pleased the Senate has taken action on this critically important bill," Wolf said in a written statement after Senate passage.
"I do not pretend to think that a special envoy ... would single-handedly solve the problem, for it is vast," Wolf said. "But I can say with certainty that it would provide much-needed hope and comfort to communities desperate to know that the United States stands with them."
Differences in the two versions of the legislation will require the House to endorse the Senate bill or both chambers to work out an agreeable measure in a conference committee.
Among differences in the versions:
-- The House bill mandates the special envoy will prioritize activities for the countries of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, while the Senate legislation does not mention priority countries.
-- The House version requires the president to appoint a special envoy, but the Senate bill says he "may appoint" such a diplomat.
On July 8, the House passed by voice vote a five-year reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Senate has yet to act on the proposal.
Wolf introduced the reauthorization legislation and sponsored the original law enacted in 1998 that established USCIRF and the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. USCIRF is a bipartisan, nine-member panel that advises Congress, the White House and the State Department on religious liberty conditions overseas.
"In short, USCIRF has been, and with passage of this legislation will continue to be, the voice of marginalized, oppressed and persecuted people who dare to worship according to the dictates of their conscience," Wolf said of House approval of his bill.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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