Millions of people suffer from religious persecution. Here’s how America’s religious freedom ambassador is trying to change that
NEW YORK — In China, the government uses artificial intelligence to track and punish citizens for attending church.
In Myanmar, officials execute Rohingya Muslims in front of their families or force them to flee their homes.
And in the United States, many Americans are blissfully ignorant.
"Didn't most of us think … people don't do stuff like this anymore?" asked Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, during his Tuesday evening remarks at a religion and foreign policy workshop hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Contrary to popular belief, religious persecution is alive and well around the world. More than 80 percent of the global population lives in religiously restrictive environments, according to Pew Research Center.
"Governments have said, 'Yeah, well OK. We like this religion, but we don't like that one. If we persecute that one, this religion likes us more and we get more votes,'" Brownback said. "Governments are calculating instead of doing their job."
Brownback tries to convince them to change their approach.
As ambassador, he travels around the world meeting with government officials, religious leaders and victims of religious persecution to talk about religious freedom. He leads international gatherings on the issue and helps coordinate the work of nongovernmental organizations.
"The effort is to make this a grassroots movement," he said, noting that he wants as diverse a group of people working on religious freedom as the group fighting against human trafficking.
It's not only authoritarian governments standing in his way, as the Deseret News reported earlier this year. Brownback has to struggle against State Department bureaucracy, competing policy goals and apathy to make a difference for people of all faiths and no faith around the world.
At several points during his Tuesday remarks, Brownback seemed pained by the limitations of his role. He explained that he can't unilaterally decide when to label religiously motivated attacks as "genocide" or how many religious refugees to accept into the U.S.
At the State Department, "opinions get fed in and chewed and pushed and prodded and people play fair, but they play a multidimensional game," he said. "It all comes together and (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) has to make a decision."
Although Brownback was addressing a crowd of legal experts, faith leaders and human rights activists familiar with the roadblocks he was describing, audience members still criticized his administration's religious freedom track record.
They asked about the travel ban targeting mostly Muslim-majority countries, the lack of sanctions against countries like China and efforts to punish people who, for religious reasons, care for migrants along the U.S-Mexico border.
Brownback side-stepped many of these questions, noting that, as international religious freedom ambassador, he's not allowed to comment on domestic issues.
"No, we're not perfect and this administration isn't and this country isn't, but this country is the best standard for fighting for this issue of anybody in the world," he said. "We're going to keep trying to get better."
He said he hopes Congress will continue to do what it can for religious freedom both at home and abroad.
"Often, Congress is the one that leads the way," said Brownback, who previously served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and as governor of Kansas.
That remains true even as Republicans and Democrats increasingly clash over domestic religious freedom protections, he said.
Later this week, he'll meet with leaders from both parties to discuss what needs to be done to protect people of faith around the world, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I'm meeting with Democrats and Republicans and they'll have different flavors of issues," he said. "But they've been really good about standing by each other and with each other" on international religious freedom.
Brownback is optimistic about what's possible if people continue to work together to end religious persecution. Next month, for the second year in a row, he'll host representatives from around 100 countries to discuss the best paths forward.
"This administration is very serious about religious freedom and pushing it," he said.