The U.S. ambassador for religious freedom warned on Wednesday that some governments might close houses of worship for good after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
Addressing the closure of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship around the world in order to prevent the spread of the virus through religious gatherings, Sam Brownback—the U.S. Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom—acknowledged that governments in some regions would try to keep them closed beyond the current public health emergency, in order to crack down on religious minorities.
“That’s a deep concern that I’ve raised to our [International Religious Freedom] Alliance allies and others,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “We don’t want to see the leftover of this impact the closing of these religious institutions.”
Brownback also expressed his appreciation for religious leaders working with health officials and suspending large religious gatherings, especially during the holy times of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan.
Religious freedom advocates have warned against repression of religious minorities during the pandemic. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned the stigmatization of certain religious minorities as scapegoats for purportedly spreading the pandemic. It also listed countries that had already infringed upon religious freedom in their responses to the pandemic, in March.
Brownback spoke at the State Department’s publication of its annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which documents positive and negative trends in countries around the world which are either upholding freedom of religion or repressing and persecuting religious minorities.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced the report at the press conference on Wednesday. “While America is not a perfect nation by any means, we always strive toward that more perfect union,” he said.
Pompeo was questioned by a reporter about the moral authority of the United States to raise issues of religious freedom globally, given the recent protests over racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, and the “use of force” against protesters by police in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1.
The Washington Post has reported that police fired gas canisters and grenades with rubber pellets to dispel protesters from Lafayette Square, shortly before President Donald Trump walked to the outside of St. John’s Episcopal Church, adjacent to the square, and held up a Bible in front of cameras in an apparent photo-op.
Pompeo called the question “so troubling,” and criticized the supposed drawing of moral equivalency between state-enforced repression of religious minorities in Iran and China with American citizens being able to freely call for reforms to law enforcement.
“You can see this debate take place in America,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in nations across the world.”
After another journalist followed up that question by noting reports of police using night sticks against protesters and using force to move journalists out of certain spaces, Pompeo said that “for two-and-a-half years, I have worked for journalists to have the right to say whatever they want.”
Brownback and Pompeo addressed some of the highlights of the report. Brownback said that he was most concerned about the situation in China, given the severity of its persecution of religion, and its actions as an “exporter” of repression.
Speaking about Chinese claims that Muslim Uyghurs detained in camps have been released, Brownback said that “we have no evidence that they’ve been released.” And even if they were released, he said, it would be “into a virtual police state that China has created.”
China has detained as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), according to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). There have been reports of torture, forced renunciations of faith, and forced labor in the camps, with some detainees sent to labor in factories when they are “released” from the camps.
Brownback deplored the “horrific situation” in the region that threatens to become the “future of what oppression is going to look like,” that of a “virtual police state” where religious practice is outlawed.
He also said that in Iran, 109 members of minority religious groups remain imprisoned for their beliefs and noted that, in 2019, two Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority prisoners at Fajr Prison were executed for “enmity against god.”
The ambassador also said he was “deeply concerned” about the “escalation of violence” in Nigeria and the lack of an “effective response” by the government there.
In the long-term, Brownback said he was concerned by “a lot of communal-level violence” between religious groups that could threaten global security well into the future.
Some of the positive trends that Pompeo noted were Gambia, a member of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, bringing up crimes committed against the Rohingya Muslims before the International Court of Justice.
Pompeo also referenced the February, 2019, visit of Pope Francis to the Arabian Peninsula, which included the first-ever papal Mass there. The United Arab Emirates, he said, “really did an amazing thing in hosting the pope on a papal visit.”