U.S. gathering on religious freedom sets up competing narratives
The U.S. will host a first-of-its-kind gathering on international religious freedom next week, an assembly being hailed by evangelical voters who helped propel President Donald Trump into office.
The three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom has become the hottest ticket in Washington, with more than 80 countries sending delegations, hundreds of rights activists attending, and a number of others being shut out for political reasons as well as lack of space.
Story Continued Below
The gathering gives Trump a high-wattage spotlight for showing his pro-Christian bona fides to the evangelical voters who helped him win the Oval Office. But it also gives the president’s critics a platform to assail what they see as his hypocrisy on human rights, especially when it comes to Muslims, whom Trump once proposed banning from U.S. soil.
“We’re living in the eye of a paradox: Both narratives are out there and perception is reality,” said Chris Seiple, a religious-freedom expert who advised the ministerial organizers. He said the Trump administration is trying to tackle the topic without favoring any one religious group, and in doing so is setting “a new precedent in diplomatic history on this issue in that it is bringing together governments and grass roots — top-down and bottom-up meet.”
The administration is heavily promoting the assembly, set for Tuesday through Thursday at the State Department. At least 40 foreign ministers are expected to show, including some from countries with questionable religious-rights records. Vice President Mike Pence, who has close ties to evangelical Christian groups, is planning to deliver a speech on the event’s final day.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has talked up the gathering in several interviews in recent days, calling it a “historic opportunity.”
“Religious freedom is something that’s very important to me personally; it’s very important to President Trump,” Pompeo told ABC Radio Australia. “And the State Department is going to lead the world in opening up religious freedom to every citizen.”
When Pompeo announced the event in May, he indicated that most countries asked to send delegations would be “like-minded” — with good records on religious freedom — but that some trying to improve their standing could also get invited.
But according to a State Department staffer, countries that managed to snag seats include Bahrain and Hungary, whose governments have been accused of hostility toward some religious groups. In Bahrain, Shiite Muslims, many of whom are opposition activists, have faced crackdowns by the Sunni-led monarchy. Hungary’s increasingly autocratic ruling party has faced a backlash over a law stripping recognition from a range of religious groups.
But China, Saudi Arabia and most other so-called Countries of Particular Concern — as designated by the State Department — were left off the invite list. One exception is Uzbekistan, a CPC country that appears to have made significant progress in improving its religious-rights record; it has been invited to set an example for others.
“There is clearly an effort here to use the peer pressure of the international community to urge respect for religious freedom,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council and a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The importance of this is to send a very strong message that America is once again concerned about religious freedom. They see it not as an American right, but as a human right.”
The State Department staffer said that Russia and Turkey, whose religious-rights records have been increasingly problematic, were left off the invite list. The staffer added that administration officials hoped to highlight in particular the religious abuses by the government of Iran, an Islamist-led country that the Trump administration has singled out for pressure to the point where analysts say it is effectively aiming for regime change.
On the civil-society front, the administration is taking an inclusive approach: Invitees range from atheists to Scientologists, according to the State Department staffer. Representatives of more broad-based organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, are also on the list. Many are hosting side events.
Trump, who avoids church and has a long history of sexual dalliances, has more than any president in modern history delivered on promises to evangelical voters, who helped propel him into the White House. In January, he became the first sitting president to address the annual March for Life rally in Washington. By the conclusion of next week’s event, the administration expects to announce a series of proposals, including plans for other countries to replicate U.S. institutions, as well as naming religious-freedom ambassadors.
“There will be some very tangible items which the administration wants to release,” Perkins said. “But the biggest thing here is this sends a message, a significant message, that religious freedom is a priority for the United States.”