SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, this day has been a long time coming – (applause) – which makes it only sweeter for all of us who are gathered here. Sometimes when people are sworn in, we have to call out reinforcements – (laughter) – but this is a clear demonstration of the great support, the friendship, and the family that our ambassador can really rely on in every way. And so it is, for me, a great honor to see so many of you, familiar faces, in this crowd, to be here with us for Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook’s swearing-in, and two very special young men, who are with me on the podium, along with their mother, Christopher and Samuel. (Applause.)
Now, it is a testament to Sujay, as many of us like to call her, and her strong New York roots, that we have such a great turnout here today. (Laughter.) And there are a number of members of Congress, as we just heard, who are desperately trying to get here despite the voting requirements in the House of Representatives, and so we’re hoping that they will be here because I’m feeling like I’m a senator from New York again – (laughter) – and I want some more company.
Now, it has been a wait worthwhile, because in Sujay we have a passionate, visionary, and experienced defender of religious freedom. (Applause.) And we have a big stack of issues just waiting for her, because she and I will work in very close partnership in defending the values that those of us in this room hold so dear. Now, there is no doubt we will be busy, because around the world authoritarian regimes abuse their own citizens, violent extremists attempt to exploit sectarian tensions, and religious freedom is under threat from both quiet intolerance and violent attacks. The Obama Administration is dedicated to the rights of all people everywhere. Everyone, no matter his or her religion, should be allowed to practice their beliefs freely and safely.
Now some of you might wonder, if you don’t know her very well, how can we be so sure that Sujay is the right person for this difficult and critical position at this particular moment in history. Well, I could tell you about her many firsts. She was the first woman appointed chaplain of the New York City Police Department. (Applause.) She was the first woman, first black woman, to become senior pastor in the 200-year history of the American Baptist Churches of America. (Applause.) She was the first female president of the Hampton University Ministers Conference. (Applause.) She has been called the Harriet Tubman for women in ministry – (applause) – and one of my personal favorites, Billy Graham and Oprah rolled into one. (Laughter.) And she’s also been deeply involved in international activities her entire life.
I could go on and on, but she is going to demonstrate every single day why she is the person for this job at this time. To many, she is more than a minister, more than a spiritual leader, although she is certainly that. She is a passionate advocate for the God-given rights of people everywhere, no matter which god they believe gave them those rights in the first place. And she is a leader in bridging faith and public service, a champion of civil rights, a trailblazer, a pioneer. She’s always faced difficult odds head on.
When she first decided to become a minister, there weren’t many female ministers, and there were churches, as we know, that would not accept a female minister. But instead of stepping back, she stood up. She studied hard, and against long odds, she became ordained. She did it her own way and she blazed the path for others to follow.
Now, I have attended her sermons, and I have been swept away – (laughter) – by her infectious ability to touch everyone in her church, or in the Apollo Theater for that matter. (Laughter.) I have watched her career from her days as a White House fellow, to assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to an accomplished author, speaker, and activist.
Now, my long years of friendship with the ambassador – (laughter) – have certainly demonstrated unequivocally to me she knows how to build bridges between people. For somebody who is such a good talker, she’s an even better listener. She can foster dialogue between people. She knows how to promote respect and tolerance, and she will bring those skills to this position that she will now hold with such honor.
I first met her when she worked on my husband’s domestic policy council in the White House all those years ago. She was introduced to me then as the Baptist preacher from the Bronx. (Laughter.) And since Bill was a Baptist from Arkansas – (laughter) – and I was in a mixed marriage as a Methodist – (laughter) – I was looking to her for a little translation. (Laughter.) So some people call her Pastor Cook, some people call her Dr. Sujay. But finally, after a long wait, we can call her ambassador. (Applause.)
So we are ready for the official swearing-in, and accompanied and supported by these handsome young men – there we go – (laughter) – you’ll raise your right hand and repeat after me.
(The Oath of Office was administered.)
AMBASSADOR COOK: Thank you, Secretary Clinton, for your kind introduction and for your leadership in promoting religious freedom as a diplomatic and national security priority. I am deeply honored and humbled by this appointment to serve as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. I look forward to serving you and President Obama and working with all of my colleagues to advance human dignity around the world.
As the President has said, “Our Nation’s enduring commitment to the universal human right of religious freedom extends beyond our borders as we advocate for all who are denied the ability to choose and live their faith.”
I also want to thank my family and the friends who have walked with me for many years and encouraged me through the long confirmation process. Thank you for being here today. I would not be standing here today were it not for your support.
Madam Secretary, you have famously used the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Allow me to introduce some folks from my village.
And, of course, I want to thank my staff in the Office of International Religious Freedom. I am thrilled to join this talented group of people. Thank you for your passion and commitment to advancing this essential American value and a universal right.
We have a lot of work to do. Religious freedom is an increasingly important issue because religion is an increasingly prominent force around the globe. And today 70 percent of the world’s population—that’s nearly 5 billion people—lives in countries where there are restrictions on religious practice and belief, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. These restrictions violate human rights. They marginalize vulnerable populations. They embolden extremists and fuel sectarian tensions. And they rob societies of the moral and charitable contributions that faith communities could make if they had freedom.
But in countries that do protect religious freedom, we find that minorities are empowered, extremist ideologies have little appeal, sectarian hatred gives way to interfaith harmony, and societies flourish. Madam Secretary, as you have said, “Religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society.”
This strong correlation between religious freedom and societal health is demonstrated time and again by the State Department’s Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. We find that countries with religious freedom tend to be more stable, secure, and prosperous.
As Ambassador at Large, I intend to leverage the Report and all of the diplomatic tools at our disposal to foster greater awareness of religious persecution and increased respect for religious freedom. I look forward to partnering with our embassies, with my colleagues who manage our public diplomacy, and with other senior officials across the State Department, National Security Council, Defense Department, and the entire interagency, to find creative new ways to advance our ideals and interests. I also look forward to working with foreign governments to improve the record of religious freedom where the need is greatest.
Secretary Clinton, I share your passion for collaborating with NGOs and civil society actors as key partners in promoting shared goals and values. A nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy are ultimately reflections of the values of its people, and my friends in American civil society—many of whom are here today— live out daily the values of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.
For those of us from New York City, religious diversity is just a fact of life. We live it, we walk in it, we study in it, and we work in it. America has become the world’s most religiously diverse country, and New York is our most diverse city. New York challenges our assumptions every day. And New Yorkers learn early on the importance of respecting the beliefs and practices of others. Our city is not perfect, and we encounter bumps along the road. But I believe New York, and our entire country, is a model of how principled pluralism makes a society more vibrant and more successful.
In my new role, I draw strength and inspiration from the example of my home community, the Black church. Birthed in a context persecution, the Black church helped my people endure centuries of degradation and segregation. It gave voice to the yearnings for freedom and justice. It’s no surprise that the civil rights movement was largely organized from the black churches and championed from our pulpits.
For the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, his heart, his passion, his core convictions, his words and his actions were inseparable from his faith. Faith is a public and private reality. As Black American who have experienced more than our fair share of discrimination, we appreciate diversity and cherish the freedoms in the First Amendment. People of every worldview—be it spiritual or secular—have equal rights to speak in the public square. And we need stand up when anyone’s right to believe or to voice those convictions are violated. As Dr. King told us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I had the privilege of serving as a domestic policy advisor in President Bill Clinton’s White House. And I remember his call to defend religious liberty in 1996: “Let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. Let us instead respect one another’s faiths, fight to the death to preserve the right of every American to practice whatever convictions he or she has.”
This vision inspires my work as America’s Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. In this era of globalization and democratic uprisings, the values of religious freedom and respect are more important than ever. Because “religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society,” in this season of the Arab Spring we must encourage the highly religious countries of the Middle East and North Africa to guarantee full equality under the law for all religious actors.
As President Obama said in his speech in this room two weeks ago, “In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shi’a must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”
It is an honor for me to serve as a principal advisor to a President and Secretary of State so deeply committed to advancing religious freedom as a core part of U.S. foreign policy. Thank you, Madam Secretary, for your friendship and support over the past two decades.
And thank you, once again, to all of you for joining in this ceremony today. I now ask you to join me in one of the great civil rights struggles of our day—the struggle for religious liberty and respect for religious diversity around the world.
Suzan D. Johnson Cook was sworn in as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on May 16, 2011.
Prior to joining the State Department, Ambassador Johnson Cook served as the senior pastor and CEO of the Bronx Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in New York City from 1996-2010. She was also the founder and president of Wisdom Women Worldwide Center and the owner of Charisma Speakers.
In 1993, Johnson Cook was a White House Fellow on the Domestic Policy Council. In that role, she advised President Bill Clinton on a range of issues including homelessness, violence, and community empowerment. She also worked with the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development on faith-based initiatives from 1994 until 1997. President Clinton appointed her in 1997 to serve on his National Initiative on Race as his only faith advisor.
Johnson Cook held the position of Chaplain to the New York City Police Department for twenty-one years, the only woman to serve in that role. She was also a founder and board member of the Multi-Ethnic Center in New York City. From 1983-1996, she served as Senior Pastor to the Mariners Temple Baptist Church, and was a professor at New York Theological Seminary from 1988-1996.
Johnson Cook has travelled to five continents to promote religious freedom. She has led interfaith delegations to Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and throughout the Caribbean. She worked with World Vision in Ruschlikon, Switzerland in its efforts to combat global poverty, and travelled to Zimbabwe and South Africa to meet with Zulu faith leaders to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance. As a young woman, Johnson Cook worked with Operation Crossroads Africa, where she participated in a cross-cultural exchange with student groups in Ghana and Nigeria. She also spent time living and studying in Valencia, Spain.
Johnson Cook is the recipient of several awards, including the Woman of Conscience Award, the Martin Luther King Award, the Visionary Leaders Award, and has also authored ten books. She received her Bachelor of Science in Speech from Emerson College in Boston in 1976 and a Master of Arts from Columbia University Teachers College in New York City in 1978. She completed a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, in 1983 and 1990, respectively. She was also the recipient of the President’s Administrative Fellowship at Harvard University, where she served as Associate Dean and later as professor.
Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The legislation affirms America’s commitment to religious freedom, enshrined both in the United States Constitution and in numerous international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The International Religious Freedom Act (The Act) acknowledges the pressure and persecution that many around the world face because of their religious beliefs and requires the President to take a series of steps toward the protection and promotion of freedom of religion.
The Act establishes the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department and instructs the President to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom to head the office and advise the Secretary of State and the President on issues related to international religious freedom. The Ambassador is also responsible for providing information related to religious freedom to be included in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Human Rights Reports) and preparing a separate Annual Report on International Religious Freedom (International Religious Freedom Report (IRFR)). The IRFR describes the status of religious freedom in every country, highlights trends and violations, and details the actions that the United States government is taking to improve freedom of religion.
The legislation also establishes the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which is composed of the Ambassador and nine additional experts, three each appointed by the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Member of the USCIRF are responsible for reviewing the HRR and IRFR and for making policy recommendations to the Secretary and the President in relation to freedom of religion around the globe. The USCIRF also prepares an annual report.
The International Religious Freedom Act provides the President with a number of options to use in addressing “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC), those countries that have committed or allowed the commission of particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The President is responsible for identifying the source of the violation, consulting with the government in the offending country and other governments in order to coordinate an international response, and reporting to Congress. In addressing the CPCs, the President’s options include: demarches; private or public condemnation; the denial, delay or cancellation of scientific or cultural exchanges; the cancellation of a state visit; the withdrawal or limitation of humanitarian or security assistance; and the restriction of credit or loans from United States and multilateral organizations.