Trump administration officials promise action for global religious liberty

Washington D.C., Jun 25, 2019 / 05:07 pm (CNA).- With the latest U.S. report on global persecution of individuals and groups based on their religious beliefs, the Trump administration promised action to counter the human rights violations of the countries and groups listed in the U.S. State Department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom.

“As in previous years, our report exposes a chilling array of abuses committed by oppressive regimes, violent extremist groups, and individual citizens. For all those that run roughshod over religious freedom, I’ll say this: The United States is watching and you will be held to account,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Pompeo released the report at a June 21 briefing with U.S. Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback.

The Secretary of State summarized the situation in the worst countries: “People are persecuted – handcuffed, thrown in jail, even killed – for their decision to believe, or not to believe. For worshipping according to their conscience. For teaching their children about their faith. For speaking about their beliefs in public. For gathering in private, as so many of us have done, to study the Bible, the Torah, or the Qu’ran,” he said.

“Go into any mosque, any church, any temple in America, and you’ll hear the same thing: Americans believe that kind of intolerance is deeply wrong,” said Pompeo, who said it is “a distinctly American responsibility to stand up for faith in every nation’s public square.”

The State Department has 90 days to designate “countries of particular concern” and to choose which countries to put on a special watch list. It can also designate non-state actors as “entities of particular concern.” The designations can have significant legal consequences

Pompeo cited the “good news” that Uzbekistan is no longer listed as a country of particular concern, for the first time in 13 years. Though the secretary said “much work remains,” the country has created a “religious freedom roadmap.” It has released about 1,500 religious prisoners and ended a blacklist that banned about 16,000 people from travel due to their religious affiliations.

Pompeo said the State Department looks forward to legal reforms on registration requirements so that more religious groups may worship freely and so that children may pray at mosques with their parents.

He credited President Donald Trump for leading a government-wide effort to secure the release of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey, saying he had been wrongly imprisoned for his faith.

The briefing also turned critical.

While Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted the Catholic woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy and spared her from execution after almost a decade in prison, over 40 people are serving a life sentence or face execution for the same charge. Pompeo called for these captives’ release and for the government to appoint an envoy to address various religious freedom concerns.

Pompeo opposed what he said was Iran’s “crackdown” on Baha’is, Christians and others.

Brownback expanded on this, saying Iranian religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims, “face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs.”

“Their religious books are banned. They are denied access to education. Their cemeteries are desecrated. Blasphemy and proselytization of Muslims is punishable by death,” he said.

Pompeo criticized Russia’s categorization of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “terrorists,” the confiscation of their property, and the threats to their families. He spoke against the Burmese military’s violence against Rohingya Muslims, saying hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee or to live in overcrowded refugee camps.

China also drew criticism from Pompeo, who said, “The Chinese Communist Party has exhibited extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding. The party demands that it alone be called God.”

Brownback added: “China has declared war on faith. We’ve seen increasing Chinese Government abuse of believers of nearly all faiths and from all parts of the mainland.”

“They’ve increased their repression of Christians, shutting down churches and arresting adherents for their peaceful religious practices,” said Brownback, predicting this will affect China’s standing domestically and around the world.

China’s government has made “intense persecution” normal for many religious believers, including Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists, Pompeo said.

The State Department added a special section to its report on China to discuss the country’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang autonomous region.

Brownback went into more detail on problems in other countries. He objected to Eritrean authorities’ continued house arrest of Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Antonios, detained since 2006, and the detention of hundreds of other “prisoners of conscience.” The Turkish government continues to keep closed the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople’s Theological School of Halki, he said.

According to Brownback, religious leaders in Nicaragua report “constant surveillance, intimidation and threats.”

“The national police assault priests in full daylight, revealing the government’s contempt for any religious leaders they view as a threat to their authority,” he said.

In Brownback’s view, the Trump administration has made religious freedom a top priority and fought “for people of all faiths.”

“We will not stop until we see the iron curtain of religious persecution come down; until governments no longer detain and torture people for simply being of a particular faith or associated with it; until people are no longer charged and prosecuted on specious charges of blasphemy; until the world no longer believes it can get away with persecuting anyone of any faith without consequences,” he said. “We will not stop.”

Pompeo noted the upcoming second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, to be held in mid-July, expected to draw up to 1,000 people.

He said the first ministerial was “truly a stunning show of unity – people of all faiths standing up for the most basic of all human rights.” It inspired follow-up conferences in the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.

The State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund, launched to support victims of persecution and to “give groups the tools to respond,” has received millions of dollars, he reported.

Pompeo said the State Department is elevating its Office of International Religious Freedom and its Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, effective immediately. These offices will now report directly to the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

Tony Perkins, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, welcomed the report. He said the State Department should not use pre-existing sanctions or indefinite wavers because these “provide little or no incentive for governments of CPC-designated countries to reduce or halt egregious religious freedom violations.”

The commission was established by Congress to monitor and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. It makes policy recommendations to the President, to the Secretary of State and to Congress. It released its own report in April.

The U.S. itself has been a focus of concerns for religious freedom. While freedom of religion is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions, anti-discrimination laws and policies have forced Catholic adoption agencies to close, while Christians in the wedding industry face pressure to serve same-sex wedding ceremonies or face lawsuits.

The House of Representatives recently passed the Equality Act, which would strip religious freedom protections against many discrimination lawsuits.

The Little Sisters of the Poor continue a legal fight to secure their protections from mandatory health care coverage of drugs and procedures barred by Catholic ethics.

The Trump administration’s ban against travelers from several predominantly Muslim countries, characterized during his campaign as a “Muslim ban,” was among other actions that prompted strong concern. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision.

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