The U.S. State Department is set to host the largest and highest-level global meeting on religious liberty next week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told EWTN he is prepared to talk with countries with whom the U.S. government has “deep disagreements.”
The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom will be held on July 24-26 and include foreign ministers, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to discuss concrete ways to combat religious persecution in different parts of the world. A Ministerial is a high-level international gathering of senior-rank government officials and experts.
“It’s truly historic. It’s the first time the State Department has led such a discussion. We’ll have over 80 delegations from countries around the world, many, many religious organizations, NGOs,” Secretary Pompeo told Lauren Ashburn of EWTN News Nightly on Thursday.
During the three-day event, survivors of religious persecution will share their stories, senior U.S. government officials will provide an overview of religious freedom policy goals, and foreign delegations will announce new initiatives to promote freedom of religion.
The State Department announced earlier this week that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will address attendees on the importance of international religious freedom on July 26.
Ahead of the ministerial, some have criticized Secretary Pompeo’s prior announcement that the event will be a meeting of “like-minded” countries.
“When I said like-minded, I meant those countries that are prepared to begin their walk towards the religious freedom that we have enshrined in our Constitution and that our nation so values and cherishes,” Pompeo told Ashburn.
“I’m sure there’ll be countries here that we have deep disagreements with,” said Pompeo.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, is expected to attend the ministerial. On July 19, the American Mideast Coalition for Democracy wrote to the U.S. secretary of state urging him to confront Bassil over the arrest and interrogation of two Maronite Christians in Lebanon earlier this month. AMCD reports that the Maronite Christians were targeted for their contacts with Israeli Christians made at an American conference on reviving the Aramaic language and culture.
Pompeo, who met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un earlier this year, has said repeatedly that he raises the issue of human rights when meeting with so-called bad actors, although sometimes privately.
“The State Department takes this issue of religious freedom very seriously. In conversations with countries that don’t live up to the standards of religious freedom that they ought to have, we raise that issue, sometimes privately if we think that’s the most effective way to achieve the change that we’re looking for, and sometimes publicly if we think that will accomplish our goal,” Pompeo told EWTN.
When asked about religious liberty issues within the U.S., Pompeo responded, “My faith teaches me that imperfection is all around us, and when it comes to government that’s certainly the case as well. I think the United States stands as an enormous beacon of religious freedom. I’m confident that we can always do better.”
“But we stand strong here in the United States for religious tolerance and freedom, and I think that’s an important demonstration to the world of how valuable that fundamental human right can be to a strong and successful nation,” he continued.
The State Department currently designates 10 “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Since becoming Secretary of State in April, Pompeo has led major U.S. foreign policy shifts towards several of these countries, most notably North Korea and Iran.
A state department official has said that Pompeo plans to address the persecution of religious groups in Iran during a speech on Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in southern California.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 -- the passage of which created the position of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and other government offices dedicated to the issue.
Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback will launch the week’s activities with a delegation of survivors of contemporary religious persecution in China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan, and elsewhere at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Many other religious freedom events will be held in Washington throughout the week of the ministerial. The Religious Freedom Institute will host U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich who will speak on a Vatican perspective on religious freedom on July 24, and the Pew Research center will present their data on global religious restrictions and nationalism in Europe.
“It should be a great gathering where we will make the point that religious freedom is a human right and that every individual ought to have their right to practice their particular religion, or if they have no faith, to not be punished for that either,” said Pompeo.