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Obama taps religious freedom envoy

WASHINGTON (BP)–President Obama has nominated an ambassador–at-large for international religious freedom nearly a year and a half after he took office.

Obama named Suzan Johnson Cook, a longtime New York City pastor, as his appointee to the post. Cook served as senior pastor of Bronx Christian Fellowship Church and is founder and president of Wisdom Worldwide Center. She was a member of former President Clinton’s seven-member advisory panel on race.

There had been calls for the president to appoint someone to the position since the first anniversary of his inauguration in January. Members of Congress, the bipartisan U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and several religious liberty advocates, including Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, had urged Obama to make an appointment.

Cook was mentioned as the leading candidate for the post in January, but advocates on the issue said she lacked experience on religious freedom and foreign policy issues, The Washington Post reported.

USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo said of the appointment, “We have been urging this for months and are pleased that the day has finally come.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Cook “is an experienced religious leader with a passion for human rights and an impressive record of public service. President Obama could not have found a more fitting choice for this important position.”

Nominees to the ambassador-at-large post require Senate confirmation.

Also on June 15, Obama named Baptist pastor William Shaw as a USCIRF member. Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa., is immediate past president of the National Baptist Convention, USA.

Shaw replaces Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. President Bush first named Cromartie to the commission in 2004.

The president also named veteran commissioner Felice Gaer as a first-time presidential appointee to USCIRF. Gaer, who is a director with the American Jewish Committee, had previously served as an appointee by Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives since 2001.

On June 16, USCIRF members re-elected Leo as chairman and selected Don Argue and Elizabeth Prodromou as vice chairs. Argue, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, is chancellor of Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash. Prodromou is professor of international relations at Boston University.

Still serving as USCIRF commissioners are Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Talal Y. Eid, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Institute of Boston, Mass., and Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom of the Hudson Institute.

USCIRF’s responsibility is to advise the administration and Congress regarding the conditions for religious liberty overseas. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The ambassador-at-large serves as a non-voting member of USCIRF.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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