Trump Should Adopt an International Religious-Freedom Policy with Teeth

A damaged statue of the Virgin Mary in a church in Qaraqosh, east of Mosul, Iraq (Reuters photo: Goran Tomasevic)
American Christians should urge him to adopt policies to help the church where it’s persecuted.

The young girl’s mother wept in the wedding hall. But they were not the tears of joy that countless mothers before her shed in this space. They were bitter tears pouring down her forlorn face as she recounted how her youngest daughter, only three years old, was kidnapped by ISIS. If Christina (which means Christ-follower) is still alive, she is now the personal property of radical Islamic terrorists and will probably never see her own mother again.

The fate of this Iraqi Christian girl and her co-religionists is not unique. Millions of religious minorities across the globe face violence, sexual abuse, and constant harassment for keeping their faith. According to the latest report by the Pew Research Center on global restrictions on religion, Christians are the most persecuted group in the world, facing harassment in 128 countries. Their plight should move Americans, especially U.S. Christians, to act.

This week, some are pledging to do so. Vice President Mike Pence joined concerned Christians and other advocates yesterday in Washington, D.C., at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, to discuss what America and free societies across the world must do to ensure that every person’s fundamental right to conscience is protected.

In his remarks to the conference, Pence remarked that “persecution of one faith is ultimately persecution of all faiths,” adding that “protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign-policy priority of the Trump administration.” As a beacon of freedom and hope the world over, American Christians cannot stand idly by while these atrocities and persecutions continue. After eight long years of neglect for rights of conscience under the previous administration, the Trump administration should act quickly and decisively to help guarantee this first freedom — freedom of faith.

While the Summit is an opportunity for Christian leaders to honor members of their faith who are suffering and to stand with them, now is the time to engage a new administration in Washington. It is imperative that the Trump administration take up anew the age-old problem of religious persecution, which only seems to grow worse.

Nearly a year ago, I attended a private event with other Christian leaders and candidate Donald Trump. He was asked what he would do about challenges to religious freedom. In response, he asked those attending why, given their numbers in the U.S., they weren’t doing more to unite as a political unit to make this issue a priority.

Trump was right: It is time for Christians in America, where we have been given so much freedom, to do much more to stand up against the persecution affecting our co-religionists in 128 countries around the world. American Christians represent millions of constituents who, if united, could take a stand for religious freedom and make it a priority for our government. If not us, then who, and if not now, when?

In Iraq, the U.S. continues to aid in the defeat of ISIS while saying nothing about the need for changes to ensure the long-term viability of communities facing sectarian conflict and genocide.

We hope that the BGEA Summit will spur American Christians to call for increased religious freedom. And when they do, they will need to urge the administration to pursue a new strategy to advance it.

They must recognize that religious freedom is a critical linchpin for every other human right and for peace and security globally. When that freedom suffers, so too does the stability of a country. As the situations in Iraq and Syria have shown, when religious oppression runs rampant, it leads to military conflict and humanitarian crisis. It also destabilizes countries, and there terrorist networks find safe havens from which they can launch attacks on America. Religious freedom is a national-security imperative.

Religious freedom must be prioritized in our foreign policy. We cannot ignore abuses of this freedom in countries considered allies. When we do, Americans suffer and conflicts escalate.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s crackdown on religious communities has been largely ignored. When he imprisoned an American pastor at the end of 2016, the silence was deafening. American pastor Andrew Brunson was imprisoned in October 2016 and later accused of membership in an armed terrorist group that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, held to be responsible for the failed coup against him in July 2016.

In Iraq, the U.S. continues to aid in the defeat of ISIS while saying nothing about the need for legal changes that would ensure the long-term viability of communities facing sectarian conflict and genocide. We should invest in programs that bolster local leadership and respect for religious freedom, to help mitigate potential conflict. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom should undertake a cost-benefit analysis of how religious freedom can help ensure that peace is sustainable and that it can thereby prevail in places like Iraq.

Finally, there should be high-level involvement to ensure that foreign-service officers are receiving the training required by law in religious freedom. FSOs are the president’s soft-power boots on the ground, but to be effective they need proper training.

When Meriam Ibrahim, a Christian woman, was imprisoned in Sudan and sentenced to death for apostasy, U.S.-embassy officials were woefully absent in aiding her. Her husband was an American citizen, and she was shackled to a prison floor with her 18-month-old son while her baby girl was born. Still, the officials did nothing.

The time for doing nothing is over. American Christians and all people of conscience must work with the Trump administration to uphold religious-freedom rights for everyone the world over.

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