Trump to Focus on Religious Freedom at UN General Assembly

September 20, 2019 Updated: September 22, 2019

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump is set to make the protection of religious freedom a key focus at the United Nations meetings in New York.

“The president will highlight American values and underscore that America is a positive alternative to authoritarianism,” a senior administration official told reporters on Sept. 20. “Specifically, he will use this opportunity to showcase the administration’s commitment to upholding democracy and protecting religious freedom.”

World leaders are gathering in New York this week for the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly. The president will kick off his meetings with a “global call to protect religious freedom” event on Sept. 23 at U.N. headquarters.

The event, which will be hosted by Trump, “seeks to highlight and broaden international support for protecting religious freedom in the wake of the increasing persecution of people on the basis of their own belief and faith,” the senior administration official said, calling it a “core event.”

“The president is calling on all world leaders to begin to not just talk about it, but to take action to acknowledge it and to move forward,” the official said.

The Trump administration has been pushing for greater tolerance of different faiths by governments around the world. Almost 83 percent of the world’s population in 2016 lived in countries with high or very high religious restrictions, according to a 2018 study by Pew Research Center.

To address the problem, the U.S. State Department initiated the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington last year. More than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders, and more than 100 foreign delegations were invited to the second Ministerial in July, in what has been called the largest religious freedom event in the world.

Reporting on religious freedom makes clear why Trump would highlight the issue at the U.N.

Religious-freedom conditions continued to worsen in countries around the world in 2018, according to the latest report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress. The report listed 10 countries, including Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea as “countries of particular concern.”

“The Chinese government continued to persecute all faiths in an effort to ‘sinicize’ religious belief, a campaign that attempts not only to diminish and erase the independent practice of religion, but also the cultural and linguistic heritage of religious and ethnic communities, particularly Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims,” the report stated, calling on the U.S. government and the international community to sanction Chinese officials and agencies involved in human rights violations.

“Although a handful of foreign governments—including the United States, Britain, and Turkey—have harshly condemned the Chinese government for these egregious abuses, China has faced few, if any, consequences,” the report stated.

Religious groups and minorities in China—including Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners—continue to suffer from systematic arrest, unlawful imprisonment, torture, and brainwashing. Even more alarming is the forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, which has become a multibillion-dollar industry, according to researchers.

“The state is using everything from concentration camps to facial-recognition technology to ensure that the only worship and belief allowed is that which submits to Chinese Communist orthodoxy. People who resist this mandate are ruthlessly plowed over,” Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Sept. 22.

Climate Change Summit

Trump has received some media criticism for scheduling his meeting on religious freedom during a climate change summit hosted by the U.N. secretary-general on Sept. 23. The climate change summit will focus on “new initiatives by government, business, and civil society to increase their commitments to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and work toward reducing emissions to essentially zero by mid-century,” according to the U.N.

Trump announced in 2017 that the United States would leave the Paris climate accord, citing the disproportionate negative effects it would have on U.S. businesses and jobs.

“This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States,” Trump said in his speech when announcing the decision.

The Trump administration also withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council in June 2018, saying the organization wasn’t worthy of its name.

“The Human Rights Council has become an exercise in shameless hypocrisy, with many of the world’s worst human-rights abuses going ignored and some of the world’s most serious offenders sitting on the council itself,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing the exit.

President’s UN Agenda

The president will address the General Assembly on Sept. 24. On the sidelines of the event, he is scheduled to hold meetings with several leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Polish President Andrzej Duda, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are set to meet on Sept. 25. In August, they announced that they had reached a deal on “core principles” of a trade agreement covering market access in agriculture and some industrial goods, as well as digital trade. Both sides are expected to sign the deal at the U.N. General Assembly.

The president also is set to meet with Western Hemisphere leaders to discuss Venezuela and ask them to increase the pressure on the illegitimate Nicolas Maduro regime.

Follow Emel on Twitter: @mlakan
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