Nearly a year has passed since President Donald Trump’s election, and advocates for international religious freedom and persecuted Christians have observed that the administration has made serious efforts to turn Trump’s public commitments to persecuted Christians and religious liberty into policy, and policy into action.
The clearest example came Oct. 25, when Vice President Mike Pence delivered the keynote address at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) annual conference in Washington, D.C., and announced a “game-changer” for Christians and other minorities victimized by ISIS — one that Middle Eastern patriarchs, bishops, advocates and their allies had been lobbying for the past several years. The U.S. government will no longer work solely with the United Nations, but also directly fund the efforts of the private aid organizations and churches that have been helping Iraqi Christians and other victims of genocide survive in the region.
Andrew Doran, IDC’s vice president, told Angelus News that displaced Christians and other religious minorities needed to hear this encouraging news. These victims, he said, have generally shied away from the U.N.’s camps, and thus their survival in their ancestral homelands has had to rely on private charity funneled through their churches.
Pence in his speech indicated the administration had listened to the IDC and allied organizations, which revealed the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) was mismanaging USAID funds, failing to rebuild housing and poorly executing projects meant to help Christians return to their homes in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain.
“This is highly encouraging,” said Doran, adding it was a sign that the administration both “lost patience” with the UNDP and were “really committed to [Christians’] plight.”
The importance of taking concrete action on religious liberty all over the globe was emphasized by Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special investigator on religious rights, who revealed Oct. 24 that three-quarters of the world’s population live in countries that restrict their right to religion, or where they experience “a high level of social hostility” to their religion. He emphasized that global religious intolerance is getting worse.
John McCarthy, Australia’s former ambassador to the Holy See, told Angelus News that the Trump administration seems to be giving the issue of religious liberty a higher priority than previous administrations. He noted that during the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry did take religious liberty overseas seriously, and established the Office of Religion and Global Affairs to assist in the endeavor. That office has been folded under Trump into the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department, and it remains to be seen whether the combined office will work as effectively.
But the overall picture, McCarthy said, is that to date the Trump administration has not only been saying more, but also doing more.
McCarthy noted that Pence’s active engagement on religious liberty issues has signaled to advocates of persecuted Christians that they have his ear in the administration. Governments overseas are also realizing that the U.S. is placing a “high priority” on religious freedom. He noted that when Pence visited Indonesia, he affirmed the government’s commitment under President Joko Widodo to “the rule of law, human rights and religious diversity” in the face of growing extremism and intolerance attributed to Saudi Arabia’s spread of Wahhabi-style Islam.
In Myanmar, where the military is carrying out what appears to be a campaign of genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, the U.S. government has begun to exert what little leverage it has by withdrawing military assistance. The State Department is also preparing declarations on “ethnic cleansing” that could be a prelude to further sanctions.
Personnel is policy
The appointment of Sam Brownback, the former governor and U.S. senator from Kansas, as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was praised as another mark of the administration’s serious commitment to overseas religious freedom. Brownback’s position would give him a bully pulpit in the State Department to demand action on religious freedom.
John Allen Jr., author of “The Global War on Christians,” told Angelus News that the current administration has “said all the right things” on Christian persecution and religious freedom overseas, but those commitments have not yet been met with sustained implementation due to the administration’s headaches in getting anybody into place in government, let alone in the State Department. Even Brownback, he said, has no voice to raise in the State Department because he has yet to be confirmed. Without confirmed political appointees to shepherd policy into action, the State Department’s efforts on religious freedom continue to be uneven.
Allen said the Trump administration will have to prioritize listening to the people it intends to help. The State Department through previous administrations was resistant to recognizing the persecution of Christians, Allen explained, until the “genocidal grotesque” nature of ISIS horrors made it undeniable.
Allen pointed out that even after Congress allocated $1.4 billion in aid to help genocide victims, the State Department preferred to send it through the U.N. instead of recognizing that the organizations already helping Christian genocide victims are the churches in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan, thanks to the millions of dollars collected by charities such as the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need and Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
The perennial problem for the U.S. commitment to international religious liberty has been the habit of acting on religious freedom when it is easy, and soft-peddling violations by major allies, such as India or trading partners, such as China, where religious liberty violations are among a raft of human rights issues. India, Allen noted, leads the pack in terms of “raw numbers” for physical instances of Christian persecution due to violence by Hindu extremists.
“If we’re going to be serious about anti-Christian persecution and international religious freedom, we have to be willing to pay a price for it,” he said.
Habib Malik, a human rights activist and history professor at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, told Angelus News that the administration’s decision to work directly with Christian organizations aiding persecuted Christians and other minority religious groups victimized by ISIS could provide enormous relief and help them return to their homelands. However, the State Department would have to work closely with those organizations in a coordinated and sensitive manner, he said, to make sure Christians do not get tagged with labels like “crusader,” which happened when the U.S. invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein.
“It’s been a rocky ride for the last several years for native Christians,” he said.
Guaranteeing a future for religious freedom in the Middle East requires the indigenous Christian presence. While the U.S. government has helped with the military defeat of ISIS, Malik said careful U.S. diplomacy will be necessary to de-escalate the region’s conflicts and provide the peace needed for Christians to remain and thrive.
Malik said keeping Lebanon out of a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah is in the U.S.’s national security interests. Lebanon offers a model for putting Syria and Iraq back together, because it is a unified state with a de facto federal model for its different sects. The Christians have maintained their free status and exerted a moderating influence on Muslims. Muslims are also free to convert to Christianity or another sect.
The country affirms the central insight that securing religious freedom for Christians is good for everyone involved.
“The key is,” Malik said, “if you want to support and nurture Muslim moderation, you need to make sure where they live that the Christians are free and secure.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer at the National Catholic Register, a news service of the EWTN Global Catholic Network. He is a Catholic journalist who has covered a variety of topics and persons in the U.S., the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, and Pope Francis's historic visits to Jerusalem, the Holy Land, and the United States.