clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Do persecuted Christians receive too much attention at the expense of others? Inside the international effort to protect religious freedom

Christians suffer from harassment in more countries around the world than any other faith group. But the Trump administration may still give their struggles too much attention, according to some foreign policy experts.

WASHINGTON — The words echoed throughout the historic U.S. Capitol rotunda, comforting those who sang them and startling some of the tourists who'd just stumbled in.

"Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee. How great thou art. How great thou art."

The hymn, familiar to most American Christians, praises a God powerful enough to create the universe and loving enough to forgive sins. On this balmy Washington, D.C., evening, it also honored those willing to worship that God even when it puts their lives at risk.

"Though the genocide in Iraq and Syria has ended, the future of the ancient Christian community in the region still hangs in the balance," said Toufic Baaklini, president and chairman of the board of directors for In Defense of Christians, which organized the prayer service for Middle Eastern Christians, during the event.

The struggles of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere are hard to comprehend in the American context, where the political discourse is more likely to focus on Christian privilege than persecution. That's one reason why the Trump administration continues to face criticism for trying to help out Christian communities around the world.

"Some people don't want us to stand up for Christians because they don't want to be too supportive of Christians. To which I respond, I think we need to stand up (for) religious freedom for everybody, everywhere. And that includes Christians," Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, recently told The Atlantic.

With the painting of "Baptism of Pocahontas" on the wall behind him, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of New York and North America joins others in prayer in the Capitol Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, durin
With the painting of "Baptism of Pocahontas" on the wall behind him, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, Archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of New York and North America joins others in prayer in the Capitol Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, during The Early Christian Church: An Ecumenical Prayer Service in the Christian Languages of the Middle East in the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C., Monday, June 15, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

Brownback and other U.S. officials emphasized their commitment to religious freedom for all throughout this week's State Department conference on religious persecution, called the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The schedule and guest list seemed designed to quiet accusations of Christian favoritism.

Many foreign policy experts remain unconvinced. Well-crafted statements defending Muslims don't mask the Trump administration's clear interest in using international religious freedom advocacy to earn Christian votes here at home, said Shaun Casey, director of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

"If there is one political religious constituency this president has to have for reelection, it is his fundamentalist Protestant base," he said.

Does the Trump administration privilege persecuted Christians or are persecuted Christians most in need of American help?

It's possible that both are true at the same time, according to experts on religion and politics.

Do American leaders like Christians best?

Members of the Trump administration are far from the first group of American leaders to be accused of Christian favoritism.

Since the State Department's international religious freedom office was launched two decades ago, it's struggled with the perception that its core mission is to grow Christianity around the world.

"I think people think religious freedom work is about proselytizing in foreign countries," said David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which works on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world. "It's really about every individual having the right to decide for themselves what to believe."

Christian religious leaders make their way to the Capitol Rotunda for a prayer following The Early Christian Church: An Ecumenical Prayer Service in the Christian Languages of the Middle East in the Capitol Visitor Center at the United States Capitol in W
Christian religious leaders make their way to the Capitol Rotunda for a prayer following The Early Christian Church: An Ecumenical Prayer Service in the Christian Languages of the Middle East in the Capitol Visitor Center at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Monday, June 15, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

Still, long-standing critiques aren't totally off base, said Casey, who served as U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs from 2013 to 2017. Many U.S. officials are Christian themselves and they're particularly attentive to the needs of people who share their faith.

"There's no doubt that, if you go back to the mid-1990s when people began talking about religious persecution, it was initially about the persecution of Christians. That was the gateway issue," he said.

To this day, U.S. politicians regularly use Christian language to describe the value of America's religious freedom related efforts. The ones who spoke at this week's ministerial sometimes implied that the enemy of religious freedom is godlessness, rather than religious extremists or authoritarian regimes.

"How can you separate people from what they believe unless you have no beliefs yourself and can't appreciate that other people do?" asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her Tuesday remarks at this week's religious freedom conference.

Since around 70% of the U.S. population identifies as Christian, it can be more politically advantageous for politicians to use the language they're comfortable with and focus on the victims of religious persecution they'll feel most connected to, Casey said.

"The American population seems to have more affinity for the suffering of Christians worldwide and that affinity sometimes gets mapped on to our actual policy apparatus," he said.

People stand for prayers at The Early Christian Church: An Ecumenical Prayer Service in the Christian Languages of the Middle East in the Capitol Visitor Center at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Monday, June 15, 2019.
People stand for prayers at The Early Christian Church: An Ecumenical Prayer Service in the Christian Languages of the Middle East in the Capitol Visitor Center at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., Monday, June 15, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr., For the Deseret News

Curry, like Brownback and participants in the Monday night prayer service, sees the situation differently. Government leaders worry about global Christians because they're desperately in need of our help, he said.

"I wish people would understand that Christians are the largest persecuted minority group in the world today," Curry said.

A new Pew Research Center analysis found that Christians face harassment — ranging from verbal attacks to state-sponsored murder — in more countries than any other faith group. In 2017, Christians were harassed in 143 countries, three more than Muslims and 56 more than Jews.

In the Middle East in particular, Christians are finding it harder and harder to worship God openly as they see fit, Baaklini said.

"If we do not fight for them here in Washington, they will go extinct in the place where Christianity began," he said.

The Trump administration's track record

In light of all the reasons why it could benefit the Trump administration to prioritize the needs of Christians, some observers applaud how hard Brownback, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others have advocated for non-Christians.

"I think they've been strong across the board standing up for Bahais, Muslims and others, as well," Curry said.

The crowd at this week's State Department conference was undeniably diverse. Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams presented alongside Christian pastors. U.S. leaders emphasized the value of religious pluralism in their remarks and highlighted the wide range of faith groups suffering persecution across the globe.

"Religious freedom isn't just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern or a humanist concern. It's all of our concern," Pompeo said during his Thursday address to high-level officials from more than 100 countries.

Since taking on his ambassador role, Brownback has spoken out against religious persecution against far more than Christians. He's condemned Chinese attacks on Uighur Muslims and the ethnic cleansing affecting Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

However, these statements haven't impressed critics of the Trump administration's approach to religious freedom.

"Their actions and policies speak much louder than words," wrote Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, in an email.

The statements also haven't deterred some of the Trump administration's supporters from claiming its officials like Christians best.

"The one religious freedom I think is closest to his heart is Christianity," said Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., at Monday's prayer service after praising President Donald Trump for picking Brownback for his State Department post.

The ministerial likely didn't disabuse him of that notion, despite its diverse audience and speaker lineup. Most of the concrete actions trumpeted at the event, like the release last fall of Pastor Andrew Brunson from a Turkish prison, supported Christian interests.

Additionally, the gathering was free from any official condemnation of the ongoing ban on travelers from a handful of Muslim-majority countries and attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Muslim congresswoman from Minnesota, at a recent Trump campaign event.

"Religious freedom talk in this context is a meaningless distraction at best and another way to rally the base at worst," Hurd said.

At the very least, it should be clear the Trump administration still has work to do to ensure they uphold religious freedom for all, Casey said.

"Count me as a nonbeliever that they're ever going to put gas behind the plight of Muslims," he said. "We'll get sermons and ministerials, but we will not get action on the ground."