Last week the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom released the 2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback held a press conference on May 29 to announce the release. Following that, Ambassador Brownback provided a special briefing to unveil the massive report, which covers 200 countries and territories.
“This report is a testament to the United States’ historic role in preserving and advocating for religious freedom around the world,” Secretary Pompeo declared. His words called to mind not only the values of America’s founding fathers, but the legacy of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that became law in 1998. With the passage of IRFA, concern for global religious freedom was enshrined in U.S. foreign policy in a way it had not been before.
Pompeo said, stressing that religious freedom, “is a right belonging to every individual on the globe” and assured that President Trump and Vice President Pence also stand “with those who yearn for religious liberty.” After announcing that the State Department would hold the first ever “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” and that it would be about “action,” not just a discussion group, the Secretary continued:
Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for, one that our team at the department will continue to fight for, and one that I know President Trump will continue to fight for. The United States will not stand by as spectators. We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy their most fundamental of human rights.
At the special briefing that followed, Ambassador Brownback, who was one of the Senate sponsors of the original Act, admitted that while “we’ve seen progress, but there’s much, much work to be done.” He mentioned a number of countries where restrictions on religious freedom and downright persecution are taking place. Speaking of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, imprisoned unjustly in Turkey, Brownback told how he was present in Turkey for Brunson’s trial and that he was grateful for the President’s, Vice-President’s, and Secretary’s leadership. “We will all continue to raise this case every chance we get until he is released,” he declared, adding that there are “way too many Andrew Brunsons held unfairly in prisons around the world.”
The Ambassador issued an open invitation to those present to attend the weekly roundtable he holds for human rights advocates to discuss concerns from all over the world. Brownback is working diligently to defend international religious freedom, just as he did when he was a senator.
A large part of Ambassador Brownback’s passion stems from the urgency of the situation. While delivering the opening remarks at the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s May 10 Summit on Global Christian Persecution, Ambassador Brownback indicated that there was a “global war” on religion.
In his remarks at the May 29 briefing, Brownback revealed more of what personally motivates him. He said:
We all have a stake in this fight. One person’s bondage is another person’s burden to break. We’re all people with beautiful and undeniable human dignity. Our lives are sacred. Our right to choose the road our conscience takes is inalienable.
Brownback reaffirmed Secretary Pompeo’s commitment to action. He said that the Report on International Religious Freedom is “a critical, important report, but strong action must follow.” The United States must “move religious freedom forward” and “defend it in every corner of the globe.”
America’s history of valuing freedom of conscience and faith, the legacy of the International Religious Freedom Act (renewed in 2016 as the Frank Wolf Religious Freedom Act), the urgency of the situation, and our moral obligation to bear the burden of those in bondage all inspire us as a nation to defend religious freedom. But finally, there is a very pragmatic reason for the United States to defend religious freedom. “Two key objectives of the Trump administration are reduction of terrorism and growing the economy,” Brownback said. “With religious freedom, you get both of them.”
Nations are better off when there is religious freedom he reiterated to a reporter who came at him with same tired old argument about critics warning that they were “elevating religious freedom over other human rights.”
“This is a foundational human right that this administration is supporting,” Brownback said he would tell the critics. “You do religious freedom and a whole series of better human rights come out of it.” He warned that when “you get the foundational one wrong, you really can’t build on the structure.”
Kudos to the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom for the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom and for the agenda of taking words to action. That office in particular, and the Trump Administration, overall, appears to be building a strong foundation from which to advance religious freedom and defend the persecuted. Pray that this foundation will stand through all the political pressures and shifting sands of priorities in the world today.