Vice President Mike Pence singled out leaders in Venezuela and Nicaragua for their persecution of Catholic clergy during the closing day of a high stakes summit on religious freedom at the U.S. State Department on Thursday.
Pence said the regimes of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, in Nicaragua, as well as that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, have targeted “Church leaders for defending democracy and religious freedom.”
Hundreds of Catholics in both countries have died protesting against their respective governments. Of Maduro, Pence said that he had “no legitimate claim to power” and noted that the United States was the first of now over 50 countries to recognize Juan Guaidó as the country’s new leader.
“Nicolás Maduro must go,” he insisted.
Pence’s words came during the Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which is the largest event ever hosted by a U.S. Secretary of State, bringing together over 1,000 faith leaders and civil society representatives.
In his 20-minute address, the vice president offered an overview of persecution against religious believers around the globe, from Latin America to the Middle East to China, reserving some of his harshest words for the leaders of Iran, China, and North Korea.
Pence criticized Iran for both the lack of religious freedom within the country and the manner in which he says they’ve supported religious persecution abroad, specifically for backing Shiite militias in the Nineveh plains region of northern Iraq near Kurdistan, which features historically Christian villages.
“Even as we stand strong against your leaders in Tehran, know that we are with you. We pray for you,” Pence said, addressing the people of Iran. “We urge you to press on with courage in the cause of freedom and a peaceful and prosperous future for your people.”
In describing the Chinese government’s repression of Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, Pence said that despite the crackdowns, “faith is breaking out all across China.” He pointed to the rapid growth of Christianity in the country- which he labeled as the “fastest growth in the Christian faith anywhere in the last 2,000 years” - despite a crackdown against Christianity by the Communist party.
“China’s experience is just more evidence of that time-worn truth: the solution to persecution lies in the faith and resilience of the persecuted,” he said.
China was also singled out by Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Republican Congressman Frank Wolf during the opening day of the summit, with both leaders listing the country as one of the worst offenders against religious freedom.
Pence urged the more than 100 countries represented at the ministerial to recognize that “free minds build free markets,” which leads to “prosperity and peace.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who hosted the gathering, also delivered a keynote address during the final day of the summit, where he sought to make the case that while “religious freedom is embedded deeply in the American character,” that it “isn’t exclusively an American idea.”
Pompeo pointed to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lists religious freedom as a fundamental right, as evidence that the practice of religious freedom should be promoted by all, despite the fact that 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom “is either threatened or denied entirely.”
Both Pence and Pompeo pledged that religious freedom would continue to be a key component to U.S. foreign policy, even as it seeks new economic or military agreements with violators such as China and North Korea.
On Thursday, Pompeo also announced the launch of an International Religious Freedom Alliance, which he said would establish the framework for ongoing collaboration throughout the year to bring together “like-minded” countries to tackle religious freedom concerns.
Although it was not a part of the official program, on Wednesday President Donald Trump met with a group of over twenty survivors of religious persecution, among them an Uighur Muslim from China, Christians from North Korea and Iran, a Rohingya Muslim, and a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.
“In America we’ve always understood that our rights come from God, not from government,” he told them, adding: “I don’t think any president has taken it as seriously as me.”