Washington • With the Trump administration next week hosting what is believed to be the largest, highest-level gathering to date on the issue of international religious freedom, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday framed President Donald Trump’s recent praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose country is considered among the world’s worst violators of religious liberty — as part of a strategy.
The United States is “hopeful that the engagement” Trump has had will “begin to turn this in the right direction,” Pompeo said Thursday morning during a call with reporters. “I am confident we achieved that” through Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Putin.
Pompeo said the administration has “spoken with the Russians on religious freedom,” and he suggested that some sanctions had been levied over it. However, he did not offer specifics or clarify whether he meant sanctions specifically related to religious persecution, and his staff did not respond to calls or emails seeking details.
The July 24-26 event hosted by Pompeo continues an effort begun by his immediate predecessor, Rex Tillerson. It is a major gathering of 80 minister-level officials from around the world focused on international religious freedom — encompassing broad issues such as the conditions faced by the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and by Christians in areas of the Middle East and Africa that are controlled by Islamist extremists, while eschewing hot-button cultural battles such as the debate over some bakers’ refusal to make wedding cakes for gay couples on grounds of religious freedom.
The contrast between the hyperpartisan U.S. debates about domestic religious freedom and the world of people who work on international religious liberty is stark. The latter effort is much more bipartisan, though smaller, and tends to draw far less voter passion than the domestic debates.
However, government interest in international religious liberty has been quietly growing over the past 20 years, since President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act, which created government offices committed to the topic.
Advocates are ecstatic about next week’s meeting because it shows a potential area of human rights cooperation between the United States and Europe in particular at a time when relations seem to be fraying. There is also movement in countries such as Norway, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Britain to have offices aimed at promoting international religious freedom.
Britain this month appointed its first special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, Tariq Ahmad. Ahmad comes from the minority Ahmadiyya community, and the government said he will focus on interfaith respect internationally, especially persecuted minorities.
The gathering is “an amazingly positive thing,” said longtime religious liberty advocate Chris Seiple, who advised the State Department on the meeting. Having people in governments around the world at least agree to try to work together on religious liberty violations is a huge institutional step, he said.
Seiple has been critical of Trump’s term and is worried about the president’s comments in Helsinki, but he says the White House deserves credit for “this very much welcomed opportunity for people across the theological spectrum to call attention to these issues.”
What concrete things will come from the gathering, which will be addressed by Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, are unclear. The ministers may issue a joint statement or action plan at the end, but much of it is schmoozing on things such as how to get government grants, how to tackle legal challenges to religious liberty and how to promote an alternate pitch for their field — that countries with more religious liberty are more prosperous and less vulnerable to terrorism.
The Trump administration has offered strong rhetoric on the need to protect religion’s public place in U.S. society, almost always using examples in line with the president’s conservative Christian base. At the same time, advocacy groups say hate expressions against Muslims are on the rise in the country as the administration pushes a travel ban that Trump as a candidate framed as a “Muslim ban.”
Longtime advocates of global religious freedom are anxious to see what will come of the gathering next week and whether the administration’s support will be largely limited to rhetoric about the general importance of religion.
Since Trump’s inauguration, the State Department has shrunk the staff that works on religion and hasn’t filled key spots, including the director of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs. That was an office created under former President Barack Obama that had 25 staffers working to help diplomats understand the role of religion in global conflicts.
Survivors of extreme religious persecution will attend and speak at next week’s gathering, which will include representatives of a wide range of faiths, and will highlight problems in various countries. Asked whether representatives of Russia would be there, Pompeo said the guest list was still being finalized.
Russia was placed last year on a 16-strong U.S. government list of the worst violators of religious liberty. Problems listed included persecution of religious minorities in occupied areas and a new law banning non-Orthodox Christians from trying to promote their faith outside government buildings. Pompeo was asked Thursday whether Trump had raised the issue with Putin in Helsinki and secured any agreements of any kind.
“This administration has been relentless on protecting religious freedom, and the administration has been unembarrassed to talk about it in any venue. We do this privately, as well,” Pompeo said. “We try to use the tools that will best work, and religious freedom isn’t the only issue.”
International religious freedom has not gone beyond an aspirational principle for most presidents. Some dedicate more or fewer staff members to the issue and give more or fewer resources, but it hasn’t been a major priority amid competition from issues such as economic or security cooperation. When it is used in diplomacy, the application is not consistent.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, a country with which the administration has fostered close ties, a recent government report notes “a pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims.” Saudi Arabia was given the same designation as Russia — a “country of particular concern” — but Tillerson signed a waiver of sanctions that typically accompany being named a country that engaged in “severe violations of religious freedom.”
A contrasting approach was taken with Iran, a staunch adversary of the United States. The report cited over 100 members of religious minorities who are imprisoned in the theocratic nation. But no waivers were issued in this case.