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President Trump calls for support for international religious freedom in new executive order

The president is calling on administration officials to tackle religious persecution wherever its found.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, right, listen as President Donald Trump speaks at an event on religious freedom during the United Nations General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in New York.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump reiterated his support for international religious freedom Tuesday in an executive order aimed at increasing the government’s outreach to persecuted people of faith around the world.

The order calls on the secretary of state and other top officials to prioritize religious freedom in their work and requests that at least $50 million in foreign assistance funds be earmarked each year for programs that serve and protect faith communities.

It also instructs government leaders to offer trainings on religion to American diplomats working overseas and to empower them to bring up international religious freedom issues when meeting with foreign officials.

“Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom,” Trump wrote.

The order’s release was timed to coincide with the president’s visit to a shrine honoring Pope John Paul II, who was widely celebrated for his work on behalf of persecuted people of faith. However, the event was overshadowed by Trump’s controversial Monday night appearance in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was only possible because police tear gassed protesters gathered in front of the White House.

“Saint Pope John Paul II was an ardent defender of the rights and dignity of human beings,” said Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “He certainly would not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter or intimidate” protesters.

The new executive order was in the works before this week’s protest-related drama. It’s the latest in a series of actions related to international religious freedom taken by the Trump administration.

The president has hosted two high-profile gatherings at the State Department on the subject and, last fall, he spoke about the need to protect religious communities during an appearance at the United Nations.

“Regrettably, the religious freedom enjoyed by American citizens is rare in the world,” he said during the UN event.

Although Trump is far from the first president to champion religious freedom both at home and abroad, his administration has gone above and beyond typical procedures, according to experts on religious persecution.

Before the administration’s recent gatherings on religious freedom at the State Department, it was almost unheard of to have high-level officials come together to discuss the needs of people of faith, said Kristina Arriaga, a former commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, to the Deseret News last year.

“Normally when you have international events associated with religious freedom, they’re (attended by) low people in the diplomatic echelon,” she said.

Leaders in the White House, State Department and other agencies are committed to doing everything they can on behalf of people of faith, said Sam Brownback, who serves as U.S. ambassador-at-large on international religious freedom, to the Deseret News last year.

“You had to get an administration that wanted to really push (religious freedom) and that’s what this one does and is,” he said.

But some religious and political leaders have a very different view on the Trump administration’s work. Over the past few years, the president has been repeatedly criticized for focusing more on the needs of Christians than other persecuted religious groups.

“Far from protecting religious freedom, he’s undermining it at every turn,” said Maggie Garrett, the vice president for public policy for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to the Deseret News earlier this year.

Trump seems unconcerned with these criticisms and continues to regularly highlight his efforts to end religious persecution.

“As president, protecting religious freedom is one of my highest priorities and always has been,” he said during his appearance at the United Nations last fall.