Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

President Barack Obama said the right things about religious freedom at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday. Worshippers truly are under attack worldwide. Religion is often “twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution,” as he said.

But now it is time for the president to follow those words by appointing a strong new ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, a post that has been vacant since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned last fall.

Johnson Cook’s resignation was a surprise, but it gave supporters of religious liberty hope the president would replace her with someone who has more diplomatic experience and could effectively press the case against abuses in Syria, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere, as well as persuasively remind the nation’s allies that subtle policies against religious freedom would not be tolerated.

The world is in dire need of such a voice. Religious persecution is at critical levels, particularly in the Middle East. A Catholic leader in Iraq recently marveled at the lack of response from the United States and other Western nations, saying, “We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West?”

It is a question the United States has yet to answer.

In Iraq, Christians have been forced to flee in the face of violence. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been driven from their homes and churches and murdered by extremists. In Syria, Christians are under attack by rebel forces seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad. In Sudan, the government regularly conducts bombing raids against Christian communities in the Nuba Mountains. The website persecution.org says the lack of international attention emboldens those behind these attacks.

Christians are not the only victims of religious persecution. For example, attacks in Pakistan have forced hundreds of Hindus to flee their homes.

The United States should be not only a beacon to the world for religious liberty, it should use every means possible to end the persecution.

The president spoke of “the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear ….” That was well said, and it should be the cornerstone of a strong foreign policy position.

But it can’t happen without the swift appointment of a religious ambassador.

The ambassador-at-large position was created by Congress in 1998 and charged with advancing “the right to freedom of religion abroad, to denounce the violation of that right, and to recommend appropriate responses by the United States Government when this right is violated,” according to the law.

The right person could bring worldwide attention to the ongoing violence and persecution. He or she could enthrone religious liberty as an important part of U.S. foreign policy and send a strong signal to the world that persecution will not be tolerated.

Unfortunately, when the administration dawdles in filling that position — as it is doing now and as it did for two years before appointing Johnson Cook — the world interprets a different message. Religious liberty appears as a low priority. Those who would persecute are emboldened.

People who are suffering for their faith deserve better from the United States.