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In our opinion: The most positive development in religious freedom since 1998

Archbishop Demetrios of America, right, from Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, attends the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, July 26, 2018, attended by Vice President Mike Pence and hosted by Se
Archbishop Demetrios of America, right, from Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, attends the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, July 26, 2018, attended by Vice President Mike Pence and hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP

No president has used the position of ambassador at-large for international religious freedom to its full potential — as a fundamental cog in the execution of U.S. foreign policy, in a front-and-center position urging other nations to adopt the type of religious freedom and plurality that is a fundamental pillar of American freedom.

Like its predecessors, the Trump administration showed little intention of doing things differently until this week’s impressive Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Representatives of many world religions from about 80 countries, including Muslims, attended. They shared experiences and concerns, and they networked in ways that are sure to spread understanding and cooperation. The current ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, was there, speaking and listening.

It may have been the most positive development regarding international religious freedom since the ambassador’s position was created in 1998.

And yet it comes amid the troubling backdrop of the administration’s own words and actions suggesting a lack of respect for religious freedom. These include Brownback recently lobbying the British on behalf of a jailed anti-Muslim activist, and President Trump’s cozying up with international leaders who abuse rights of conscience, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The president recently fought for, and won, court approval for the right to impose a ban on travel to the United States from several predominantly Muslim countries.

Clearly, elements within the administration understand the fundamental link between religious liberty and peaceful self-governance. But the entire administration needs to get onboard. Otherwise, their actions may risk undermining whatever good may be done.

The ministerial summit was timely in that religious persecution continues to rise in many parts of the world. The group Open Doors lists the 50 countries where Christians face the most persecution, including India, where Islamic extremism is on the rise.

The State Department has its own long list of offender nations, and it recently added Pakistan to a watch list.

Certainly, Christians are not the only group to be attacked, and sometimes killed, for their beliefs. But Newsweek recently quoted a Catholic study that found persecution and genocide against Christians to be at the highest level in history.

As part of the summit, Attorney General Jeff Session announced the formation of a Justice Department task force to guard against the erosion of First Amendment protections for religious liberty in the United States, including workplace discrimination.

This is a positive step. The United States must retain its leadership role in protecting this essential freedom. As a State Department’s website says, “… respect for religious freedom and tolerance of the practices and beliefs of people of all faiths lie at the heart of the American identity and constitute some of main principles on which this country was founded.”

These efforts mean little, however, if the president does not retreat from anti-Muslim statements and actions, and if the United States closes its borders to refugees, many who are fleeing religious persecution.

The Muslim Diaspora Initiative publishes accounts of persecutions in the United States, including attacks on mosques and legislative debates on anti-Muslim laws. As a side-note, Utah is the only state on that list to record no such incidents, despite a Muslim population estimated at nearly 5,000. But that’s no reason to feel smug.

The ambassador at-large for international religious freedom must do more to promote the freedom of conscience worldwide. He will be more effective if the United States leads by example.