WASHINGTON (CNS) — The role of an ambassador-level position in bringing attention to abuses of religious freedom internationally is being emphasized by those who want a vacancy filled quickly or another position created to focus on specific regions — or both.

Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said at a Feb. 25 conference that “Washington has failed to make religious freedom a central aspect of U.S. foreign policy.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, President Barack Obama voiced his support for protecting religious freedom abroad, but critics point out he has yet to nominate a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, four months after the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook stepped down.

In the meantime, a bill on hold in the Senate would create a special envoy specifically to focus on the rights of religious minorities of the Near East and South Central Asia.

The Senate’s Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act of 2013, S.653, was reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December. But a hold placed on the bill in February by Republican Sens. Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma, and Mike Lee, of Utah, is blocking its progress to a vote by the full Senate.

A Feb. 27 press release paraphrased Coburn and Lee as saying the measure “duplicates the duties of an existing position: the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.”

Rev. Cook stepped down in October, after serving in the post for 29 months. Such high-level diplomatic positions, like most presidential appointments, typically take months to be announced because of the thorough vetting of nominees. Even after they are announced, Senate approval, such as is required for the ambassador-at-large, can take additional months.

For example, Cook’s predecessor, John Hanford, resigned in January 2009. Obama nominated Cook in June 2010 and her nomination expired in the Senate without a vote at the end of the 111th Congress in January 2011. She was renominated and confirmed in April 2011.

In a March 4 letter, Bishop Richard E Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, and Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, encouraged creating the new envoy to work with the ambassador.

“A special envoy is needed to focus on the dire situation affecting religious minorities, especially Christians who are the group most targeted for harassment and attacks in the largest number of countries,” they wrote in a March 4 letter to Coburn and Lee.

Joseph K. Grieboski, founder of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, supports the senators’ hold on the bill.

A new envoy “highlights only certain countries, sending a message that sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the former Soviet Union don’t matter,” Grieboski told Deseret News, a daily paper in Utah.

At a Feb. 25 conference on international religious freedom, Swett and Andrew Bennett, Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom, discussed ways the U.S. and Canada could help each other with the issue.

Canada is the only other country with a religious freedom office. It celebrated its first anniversary Feb. 19.

Bennett said religious freedom is “not a question of theology. It’s a question of human rights and human dignity.”

He noted a jump in reports of religious persecution from just five years ago.

Roughly 74 percent of the world population lives in areas of social hostility or government restrictions on the basis of religion, Bennett said, as opposed to 45 percent half a decade ago.

Swett said religious freedom is not a private matter, even though some consider it “too narrow” for a major foreign policy concern.

“If we care about the prosperity and security of other countries in the world, the last thing we want to do is consign religious freedom to second-class status,” she said.

She referenced USCIRF’s “countries of particular concern” list, which identifies nations with severe violations of religious freedom. USCIRF counts among those countries: Myanmar, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The State Department keeps its own list of countries of particular concern. It includes: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Swett said the countries included “are pretty much the list of countries from which our gravest national security threats originate.”

Bennett focused on continued engagement between the U.S. and Canada.

“There are areas in the world where it’s appropriate for Canada to act alone,” he said, but there are also areas where Canada and the U.S. can have “deep collaboration, policy-wise (and) programming-wise.”

Bennett said he hopes the U.S. and Canada will collaborate with other like-minded countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Poland.

“Freedom of religion is a foundational human right that links to other human rights,” Bennett said. “If you don’t have freedom of religion, how can you fully express yourself?”

A man attends weekday Mass at the archdiocesan headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, in this 2010 file photo. Over the last few years "Nigeria has been the most dangerous place in the world for Christians," said a new report on persecution from Aid to the Church in Need. (CNS file photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
A man attends weekday Mass at the archdiocesan headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, in this 2010 file photo. Over the last few years “Nigeria has been the most dangerous place in the world for Christians,” said a new report on persecution from Aid to the Church in Need. (CNS file photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

-By Navar Watson Catholic News ServiceĀ