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In U.N. remarks, Trump calls for more activism on behalf of persecuted people of faith

President Donald Trump has brought renewed attention to the cause of religious freedom, but his efforts are controversial.

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at an event on religious freedom during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York. From left, United Nations Chef de Cabinet Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to religious freedom Monday at the United Nations, highlighting the United States’ support for all people of faith and calling on other countries to do more to protect vulnerable religious communities.

“Regrettably, the religious freedom enjoyed by American citizens is rare in the world,” he said, noting, as other speakers did, that more than 80% of the world’s population live in countries with restrictions on religious practice.

“When I heard that number, I said, ‘Please go back and check it,’” Trump said.

Trump announced he will dedicate $25 million to “protect religious freedom, religious sites and relics,” which are often targeted in the midst of armed conflicts. His administration is also helping victims of religious persecution by forming new coalitions and designating additional funds for the eradication of faith-based violence.

“Holy sites should be places of worship, not places of war,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres after Trump spoke.

At the United Nations, Trump introduced a new coalition of business leaders aimed at helping people of faith. The group will “encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace,” Trump said.

“True tolerance means respecting the right of all people to express deeply held beliefs,” he said.

These new programs add to the administration’s previous religious freedom related efforts, which include high-profile gatherings on the topic at the State Department and the creation of an international religious freedom fund and alliance.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has set aside around $370 million to help people of faith suffering due to violence in the Middle East, said Vice President Mike Pence while introducing Trump.

“Simply put, the president is using the full weight of the United States to force the issue of religious freedom on the agendas of world leaders at the United Nations. It is not a secondary issue to the United States. It is an organizing principle for the United States and ought to be for all global leaders,” said Johnnie Moore, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and as an evangelical adviser to the president, in a Monday statement.

Although the cause of religious freedom has historically united politicians across party lines, Trump’s efforts on behalf of people of faith have been controversial.

Many liberal observers argue that he only cares about Christians and has allowed hatred against Jews, Muslims and other religious minority groups in the U.S. to rise unchecked.

“President Trump was elected on the promise of a ‘complete and utter shutdown’ of Muslim immigration to the U.S. Since then, his administration has worked tirelessly to redefine ‘religious freedom’ as a license to discriminate. If the president is serious about promoting true religious freedom worldwide, he should start with his own policies,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, in a statement released Monday.

Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said in a statement that the Trump administration has allowed religious bigotry to persist “under the guise of religious freedom” and prioritized the needs of Christians over other people of faith.

“Despite claims to stand by all who seek religious freedom, it’s obvious the president does not extend that protection to all,” said Speckhardt, who attended the United Nations event.

Shaun Casey, who served as U.S. special representative for religion and global affairs during the Obama administration, offered a similar assessment of the Trump administration to the Deseret News earlier this year. He highlighted policies like the ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, arguing that Trump only talks about religious freedom when it serves other political goals.

The Trump administration is “trying to take care of their political base: Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals,” Casey said. “There’s this deep contradiction. They’re saying, ‘I believe in religious freedom for all,’ while showing a bias against Muslims.”

Some religious freedom advocates question even Trump’s commitment to Christians, noting that the number of Christian refugees admitted to the United States has dropped during his time in office.

The Trump administration’s response to these concerns is that they’ve prioritized helping potential refugees rebuild their lives in their home countries. His administration is currently weighing whether to allow any new refugees to enter the U.S. in the year ahead.

Trump did not acknowledge the refugee debate during his remarks on Monday, but said the situation around the world is dire. He highlighted recent shootings in houses of worship in the U.S. and New Zealand and spoke about other forms of violence taking place.

“As we speak, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Yazidis and many other people of faith are being jailed, sanctioned, tortured and even murdered, often at the hands of their own government, simply for expressing their deeply held religious beliefs,” he said.

Rather than address criticism of his own leadership on religious freedom, Trump emphasized his ongoing commitment to faith communities.

“As president, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities and always has been,” he said.