Pence and Pompeo Say Religious Liberty Top US Priority

By Joan Chang
Joan Chang
Joan Chang
July 26, 2018 Updated: August 2, 2018

WASHINGTON—Religious freedom is fundamental to the United States and good for the whole world, according to remarks delivered by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the final day of a State Department-sponsored summit.

“Those nations that reject religious freedom breed radicalism and resentment in their citizens,” Pence said July 26 at the State Department’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. “They sow the seeds of violence within their borders—violence that often spills over into their neighbors and across the world.”

He said that 83 percent of the world’s population lives in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or even banned.

Pence heralded America’s history of honoring religious freedom. “The American Founders enshrined religious freedom as the first freedom in the Constitution of the United States. America has always and will always lead the world by our example,”  he said.

“The right to believe or not believe is the most fundamental of freedoms. When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms—freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves—are imperiled.”

He said religious freedom “is a top priority of this administration.”

The three-day ministerial was the first of its kind and will become an annual event, Pompeo said at the event conclusion on July 26.

He said more than 80 foreign delegations and religious leaders from around the world joined the ministerial. The religious leaders work closely with civil-society groups, “who are often on the frontlines of reporting and responding to cases of religious intolerance and persecution,” Pompeo said.

“Since the earliest days of his presidency, President Trump has directed his administration to advance and defend the rights of religious freedom at home and abroad, because religious freedom is a universal God-given right to which all people are entitled. It is also an essential building block for all free societies,” he said.

Pompeo said survivors of religious persecution shared their stories at the ministerial, “driving home why this work is so important” and “why religious freedom meant so much to them.”

He said the Trump administration is committed to advancing religious freedom and named several initiatives it is spearheading.

Action Plans

The main outcomes of the ministerial were the Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action.

The declaration, Pompeo said, is a formal affirmation that the United States “takes religious freedom seriously, that we will work with others around the world to help those under attack for their beliefs, and that we expect leaders around the world to make it their priority as well.”

The plan of action provides concrete ways that the international community and governments can do more to protect religious freedom and to protect vulnerable religious communities in their own countries.

The State Department has created a new International Religious Freedom Fund, which is a joint fund with other nations, to support the work of religious-freedom defenders and assist victims of persecution.

The department also created an International Visitor Leadership Program, a 10-day project that will bring those working on the front lines of religious freedom to the United States. The program will focus on promoting religious pluralism and protecting the rights of religious minorities.

The government also is preparing to launch a Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response initiative, which will assist communities recovering from atrocities.

“While focused first on our ongoing response to the genocide committed by ISIS in Iraq, our hope is that this program will assist victims in many different places,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo praised the ministerial as “truly unbelievable,” adding that “there is truly eternal significance in the work that we have done.”

Countries of Concern

The State Department also released several statements regarding countries of concern, including Burma, China, and Iran where religious intolerance or persecution is continuous.

“We are deeply concerned about the significant restrictions on religious freedom in China and call on the Chinese government to respect the human rights of all individuals,” the China statement said. “Many members of religious minority groups in China—including Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakh Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; Catholics; Protestants; and Falun Gong—face severe repression and discrimination because of their beliefs.”

“We strongly urge the Chinese government to protect the religious freedom of all individuals and to respect the human rights of all members of religious groups, in accordance to China’s international commitments to respect freedom of religion.”

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback summed up the enthusiasm for the ministerial,  saying, “I really think we’re at a moment where the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down, and you’re going to see a burst of freedom, of religious freedom, around the world taking place.”

Joan Chang