Thirty-five conservative and family value groups are challenging the appointment of Maura Harty, a veteran foreign service officer, to run the State Department's consular affairs bureau.

In letters to the White House, the groups said her appointment would continue the "courtesy culture" of U.S. diplomats not protecting American children who have been taken to Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

Also, they complained, U.S. consulates do not do enough to protect persecuted Christians and other minorities against repressive governments, said Keith Roderick, an Episcopal priest who chairs the campaign.

As the principal deputy in the office from 1991 to 2001, Harty was in charge of children's issues. "Unfortunately, under her leadership, the office had a reputation of capitulating to the demands of foreign states in cases of child abduction," the groups said.

"Now is not the time to continue the status quo," they wrote President Bush. "We encourage you to take this opportunity to nominate someone with strong and insightful leadership."

State Department officials defended Harty, meanwhile, as a dedicated officer who expanded the children's office to provide support for parents seeking to be reunited with their children.

Harty, a close aide of Secretary of State Colin Powell, would take over a post whose importance has grown in the past year because of its role in issuing visas.

Harty, who joined the Foreign Service in 1981, would replace Mary Ryan, who was forced out by Powell earlier this month amid controversy over visa issuing practices.

There is some support on Capitol Hill for turning over the consular office's visa functions to the proposed Homeland Security Department.

Fifteen of the 19 airplane hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks received their visas from the U.S. consular office in Saudi Arabia.

The State Department has defended the decision to issue those visas, contending that it had no information from U.S. law enforcement agencies on which to reject the applicants.

Amid widespread complaints from members of Congress, the State Department has ordered a review of procedures at all 207 U.S. posts worldwide that issue visas.