17 May 2011 – Washington, D.C.
Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, a Baptist New York City pastor, is the new U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Cook will advise the President and Secretary of State on worldwide efforts to promote religious liberty. She will also head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which produces an annual country-by-country report. Created in 1998 by the International Religious Freedom Act, the position has been vacant for the past two years. First nominated by President Obama in June 2010, Dr. Cook was sworn in on 16 May 2011.
In March 2010, a coalition of religious liberty advocates urged President Obama to fill the post, which had been unfilled since his taking office. The Institute for Global Engagement, calling the absence of senior level leadership in this area a grave concern, lauded the President’s assertion in his 2009 Cairo speech that religious liberty was “central to the ability of people to live together,” and asked that the post be given the power to catalyze results in government and non-government organizations. Obama nominated Cook in June 2010, but the appointment was seen by some as controversial, and the nomination expired when it failed approval by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November 2010.
The nomination was renewed however, and ultimately approved. In a 29 March 2011 statement before the Committee Ambassador Cook asserted, “No greater freedom exists than the inherent desire of all people to enjoy the freedom to live according to their beliefs without government interference and with government protection.” She is, she said, “deeply disturbed by the increase of persecution and violence against religious minorities in this region and in many other parts of the world. These developments belie both our values and our security.” She vowed that if approved she would “engage government and religious leaders, as well as grass-roots faith-based communities around the world, which have enormous impact on cultivating a climate more receptive to religious freedom in difficult places. As a religious leader myself, I would like to bring this perspective and use my skills and experience to encourage diverse religious communities to jointly defend and advance religious freedom and foster a climate of mutual respect.”
Dr. Cook, until recently senior pastor of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City, also served as chaplain to the NYC Police Department for twenty-one years. She has headed interfaith delegations to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Caribbean. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed her as faith advisor to his National Initiative on Race. From 1988-96, Cook was a professor at New York Theological Seminary and, from 1983-96, was senior pastor at Mariners Temple Baptist Church, the oldest church site in Manhattan.
Cook credits her passion for learning about religions to her mother, a teacher for many years in the Bronx. She sees the post as “a chance to build connections that can increase understanding and can help bring peace.”