The U.S. government will host its first-ever Ministerial Meeting to Advance Religious Freedom this summer, newly-confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced May 29.

“Religious freedom was vital to America’s beginning. Defending it is critical to our future,” Pompeo said at the announcement, which coincided with the release of the State Department’s annual report on the state of international religious freedom in 200 countries and territories.

“Our Founders understood religious freedom not as the state’s creation, but as the gift of God to every person and a fundamental right for a flourishing society. We’re committed to promoting religious freedom around the world, both now and in the future,” he continued.

The ministerial meeting of government and religious leaders, rights advocates, and civil society leaders will take place in Washington on July 25-26. It will be the first ministerial that Pompeo will host as Secretary of State, which he said is “very intentional.”

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback also spoke at the State Department’s report release on May 29.

“For far too many, the state of religious freedom is dire,” said Ambassador Brownback, who highlighted religious freedom violations in China, Burma, Turkey, Eritrea, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Pakistan that are documented in detail in the State Department report.

According to the State Department, hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in China have been forcibly sent to re-education centers. New religious regulations that went into effect in 2018 have increased the Chinese government's surveillance and monitoring of both Muslim and Christian minorities.

The report also documents the arrest of hundreds of Christians in Eritrea, where the government reportedly coerced numerous individuals into renouncing their faith.

“Saudi Arabia does not recognize the right of non-Muslims to practice their religion in public and imprisons, lashes, and fines individuals for apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting the state’s interpretation of Islam,” said Brownback.

“We also remain very concerned about religious freedom or the lack thereof in Pakistan, where some 50 individuals are serving life sentences for blasphemy, according to civil society reports. Seventeen are awaiting execution,” he continued.

In the annual religious freedom report, the State Department documents instances of religious persecution without comment or analysis. The report is a reference tool used by policy makers and civil society leaders to understand what occured within the last year in each country.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary since the enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 -- the passage of which created the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom position that Brownback now holds.

Ambassador Brownback said that it remains important for Americans to be informed and engaged in confronting these religious freedom violations.

“We all have a stake in this fight. One person’s bondage is another person’s burden to break. We’re all people with beautiful and undeniable human dignity. Our lives are sacred. Our right to choose the road our conscience takes is inalienable.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, welcomed the report and the announcement of the ministerial meeting.

“Religious freedom is under siege globally, challenging U.S. interests. It is no coincidence that the worst violators of religious freedom globally are also the biggest threats to our nation—those who wish to do Americans the most harm, and those who most want to tear down the pillars of democratic societies,” Smith said in a statement.

“Thus, a robust religious freedom diplomacy not only reflects American values, but advances U.S. national security interests.  It seems the Administration understands these facts, I look forward to working with them on this critical issue.”       

Smith, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the author of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016, which added to the original International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

The 2016 legislation gave additional tools to the State Department to promote religious freedom abroad. It expands religious freedom training for diplomats, ensures that the ambassador-at large for religious freedom can report directly to the Secretary of State, and allows for the naming of non-state actors who violate religious freedom.

“Getting the facts right on the global state of religious freedom is essential for the shaping of U.S. policy and priorities, and that is why the State Department’s annual report is so important,” Smith said in his May 29 statement.