A large portion of Jim Garlow’s “Future Conference” in San Diego this week was devoted to the plight of Christians in parts of the Middle East, including those imprisoned and even executed by ISIS and oppressive governments.
The speakers largely refrained from making strained false equivalencies between Christians persecuted by ISIS and American Christians “persecuted” by having to provide public services to gay people. (The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who has made a cottage industry out of this kind of rhetoric, was scheduled to speak but had to drop out because of illness.) To Garlow’s credit, he also invited Suzan Johnson Cook, the former Obama-appointed U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, to discuss the work that she did in that office.
But Cook was forced to confront some of the entrenched right-wing talking points about the Obama administration and religious freedom when, in a Q&A after her speech, conservative pundit Gina Loudon asked her why “we hear so little” from the administration about efforts to help victims of religious persecution. Loudon’s question echoed the claims of many Religious Right activist who claim that the president has done little to free imprisoned Christians, even when presented with evidence to the contrary.
Cook told Loudon that how much the administration says publicly about these cases does not always reflect the amount of work that they are doing “delicately and discreetly” behind the scenes. While such cases are “a priority,” she said, “many times you can’t tell the story of who’s being persecuted outwardly, because many times their very lives were at stake”:
I think that, you know, government operates in its own way. We’re one agency within a myriad of agencies. I think we have to keep the pressure on. The State Department was very much on it. And, as I said, we have interagency efforts where we certainly worked with the White House. I mean, I can’t defend why it wasn’t talked about more, but what I can say, it was a priority.
… Many times you can’t tell the story of who’s being persecuted outwardly, because many times their very lives were at stake. So there was a family, for example, in Iraq that we were helping get out. Had we made it public, that family would have been killed before they got out. So you have to use discretion and you have to move discreetly, and many times, even though it seems to the public like we’re being quiet, you must know that my days were 16-20 hour days and there was a lot of work to be done … [Y]ou really have to move delicately and discreetly, otherwise some people can not only be persecuted, but they really can be killed. And ultimately what you really want is for the person to be free.