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2/11/11 Washington DC (HuffingtonPost) – Religious liberty is the first freedom. If governments will not protect this most basic liberty of conscience, they are unlikely to protect political or civil freedoms.

Promoting human rights long has been an important U.S. government priority. America obviously has done so only imperfectly — witness persistent support for authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, the presidency has become an important bully pulpit to promote basic freedoms. Only recently has Washington paid much attention to religious liberty. The State Department’s evident lack of enthusiasm led Congress to pass the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), creating an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. The Bush administration’s efforts were anemic, but at least it fielded an ambassador.

Two years into the Obama administration the position remains vacant. Only last June, nearly 15 months after he took office, did the president finally nominate someone for the position. And with no qualifications for the position or strategy to promote religious liberty, the nominee failed to win confirmation. But even had Congress acted, the administration planned on downgrading the ambassador’s office and staff. Moreover, while promoting better relations with Islamic nations, the administration has said nothing of note about protecting religious minorities within those same countries. Two months after his party was trounced at the polls, President Barack Obama has renominated Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook as ambassador. There’s no way to retrieve the last two years, but the administration could use the upcoming confirmation process to develop a serious program to promote religious liberty.

First, the administration must define religious liberty broadly. Religion requires not just the private right to believe, but the public rights to convert, practice, and evangelize. True religious freedom requires the opportunity transform one’s life and community accordingly.

Third, the administration should revive the presidency as a bully pulpit. President Obama spoke eloquently in Cairo about improving America’s relationship with the Muslim world. He should speak equally passionately about the need for the Muslim world, in particular, to treat religious minorities with dignity and respect. Striking the right international balance is rarely easy, as the administration has found in Egypt. But the president should hold freedom of religion as high as freedom of speech and the right to democracy.

Religion is the most powerful animating force in much of the world, including in the U.S. Even where the administration is not formally pushing foreign governments to better respect religious liberty, American policymakers need to understand how religious beliefs affect American interests, from security to human rights.

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Private action, through churches, NGOs, and other groups, is one of the most important means available to combat religious persecution overseas.

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