U.S. secretary of state to push to defend religious minorities around the world

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo releases the annual U.S. assessment of religious freedom around the world, at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that the administration will prioritize religious freedom by working to defend religious minorities around the world.

“The United States will not stand by as a spectator,” Pompeo said as he unveiled the annual international religious freedom report. “We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights.”

As an indication of the more aggressive approach he will be taking, Pompeo said he will host a meeting of foreign ministers in Washington in July to discuss ways to push back against governments in countries where religious minorities are persecuted.

“The ministerial will also be my first to host as secretary of state,” said Pompeo, who was confirmed late last month. “And that’s very intentional. Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for.”

This year’s report was prepared largely under Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson. But by taking the occasion it to announce the upcoming conference, Pompeo offered the glimpse of the priority he will place on religious freedom as a cornerstone of foreign policy.

“It’s clear Secretary Pompeo intends to use this report as a way to elevate the importance of religious freedom, which could be positive as long as doing so does not minimize other rights concerns and truly protects victims of all religious persecution,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “A cursory review of this administration’s approach thus far indicates this ostensible support for religious tolerance could be easily manipulated by ideologues here at home or by abusive governments passing off so-called reform as legitimate progress.”

Pompeo belongs to an evangelical Presbyterian church that broke away from the main denomination after it moved to ordain gays and lesbians and allow pastor to officiate at same-sex marriages. At his confirmation hearing, Pompeo stood by his opposition to same-sex marriage but vowed to treat gay employees with respect.

During his tenure at the CIA, which he headed before being tapped to replace Tillerson, Pompeo expanded chaplain services for employees.

“Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests,” he said Tuesday. “Where fundamental freedoms of religion, expression, press and peaceful assembly are under attack, you find conflict, instability and terrorism. On the other hand, governments who decide to champion these freedoms are more secure, stable, peaceful.”

The State Department’s point man for the issue is Sam Brownback, a former Republican governor of Kansas.

Brownback is a convert to Catholicism, though he has attended evangelical churches. While human rights activists have expressed concern that he would focus his efforts on safeguarding Christians in foreign countries over other religious groups and other human rights, Brownback has insisted he would look at religious freedom with a broad lens.

Brownback described religious freedom as a “core value” of the administration, and said the administration will more aggressively promote the right to practice one’s faith. Brownback said he had been meeting with officials in other branches of government to discuss ways to advance the topic of religious freedom.

The July foreign ministers’ meeting is expected to focus on the linkage some researchers have found between respect for religious conscience and practical benefits.

“We seek a world with less terrorism and more economic growth,” Brownback said. “You get both with religious freedom.”

The annual report was prepared by U.S. Embassy workers posted overseas, and is largely a straightforward recitation of laws and practices affecting individuals and religious institutions.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, a country the Trump administration has fostered close ties with, the report notes “a pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims.” Saudi Arabia retains its designation as a “country of particular concern,” although 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 cites over 100 members of religious minorities who are imprisoned in the theocratic nation. But its designation as a country of particular concern was not waived.

Brownback declined to say whether Saudi Arabia would be invited to participate in the July meeting, or whether he believes it should continue to receive a waiver.

“I’m hopeful that we can work to see more religious freedom taking place in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “For years we’ve reported on the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Today, I think we have some actual opportunities for that state to change, and for it to get much better.”