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Will Trump’s State Department push religious freedom to center stage?

Why We Wrote This

To many Americans, religious freedom is the bedrock of their country, and promoting it around the world should be a priority. But how do you turn that ideal into effective policies – policies for people of all faiths?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback speaks to reporters as he unveils the annual US assessment of religious freedom around the world at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 2018.

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For two decades, an often-overshadowed movement in Washington has pushed to make religious freedom a key plank of US foreign policy. It has grown to encompass an unlikely set of bedfellows, from Sikhs to Scientologists, and is bedeviled by wildly different perceptions of its character and intent – both saintly to insidious. Now, in a move many see as driven by domestic politics, the Trump administration has trumpeted religious freedom promotion as a signature issue of its foreign policy. Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback, who now leads the Office of International Religious Freedom, has powerful political allies in fellow Christian conservatives Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We think it’s true in this administration that [religious freedom] is a God-given right,” says Mr. Brownback in an interview. “As a God-given right, then no government has a right to interfere with it.” But the push has sparked intense debate – especially from critics who question whether the administration will stand up for religious freedom for all or cater to the concerns of an evangelical Christian base.

One of the most underestimated movements in Washington today started with a man and a vacuum sweeper.

It was 1999, and Robert Seiple had just been named America’s first ambassador at large for religious freedom, a position created by Congress the year before. An escort ushered him to his new office in the State Department, and left him at the door; the room was so small that no one else could fit in it.

“It was just me and a vacuum sweeper,” Mr. Seiple recalled recently at a conference commemorating the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). “I was grateful for that vacuum sweeper, because that office needed it.”

Indeed, the title – Office of International Religious Freedom – was more grandiose than the space. Today, however, it is run by Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback, a veteran politician who heads up a team of more than 30 people and has millions of dollars at his disposal. And he has powerful political allies in Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fellow Christian conservatives who speak passionately about exporting what they see as a hallmark American value – and defending it abroad.

“We think it’s true in this administration that [religious freedom] is a God-given right,” says Mr. Brownback in an interview. “As a God-given right, then no government has a right to interfere with it.”

In the two decades since Congress passed the IRFA, an often-overshadowed movement in Washington has pushed to make religious freedom a key plank of US foreign policy. Now, in a move many see as driven by domestic politics, the Trump administration is trumpeting religious freedom promotion as a signature issue.

“I think there’s been a sense among conservative religious groups … that recent administrations have just ticked the box of the IRFA rather than genuinely embracing the agenda and investing in it,” says Peter Mandaville, who served as senior adviser of the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs from 2015-16. “I think it’s felt that with this administration, they’ve had an unprecedented opportunity to push this issue.”

In July, the State Department convened a first-ever ministerial on religious freedom, a three-day event attended by representatives from more than 80 countries, which culminated in the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action. Several months later, after an unusually high-profile intervention by President Trump, the administration celebrated the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned in Turkey. Brownback says the administration is raising China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians “at the highest levels,” and he and Mr. Pence have issued strong statements in support of Rohingya Muslims.

Such actions are boosting a growing enterprise that stretches across government, academia, and Washington’s think tank world. Religious freedom promotion encompasses an unlikely set of bedfellows, riven by internal divisions and bedeviled by wildly different perceptions of their character and intent, from saintly to insidious. In particular, critics question whether the Trump administration – supported by many white conservative Christians, for whom religious oppression abroad has long been a concern – will put equal effort into non-Christians causes.

As the movement gains momentum, it is stirring vigorous debate about just what it means to protect religious freedom, if and how the issue should be incorporated into US foreign policy, and whether the efforts are bearing fruit. 

Advocates “don’t have as much power in a realpolitik sense, but I think they have the power to frame the narrative that is also very powerful and gets underestimated,” says Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, author of “The Politics of Secularism in International Relations” and a professor of politics at Northwestern University in Chicago.

She is critical of religious freedom promotion, describing it as an “imperial project” that presumes that the US has figured out how people of many faiths can coexist and is now teaching others about it. But, she adds, “to just demonize it as just a Christian power play is way too simplistic.”

Expanding movement put to the test

What started decades ago as a largely white, male, conservative Christian movement has grown to include Sikhs and Scientologists as well as more liberals, women, and people of color – including Suzan Johnson Cook, whom former President Barack Obama appointed as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom in 2011. Her successor, Rabbi David Saperstein, was the first non-Christian to hold the office.

“There are a lot of people on the left who are interested in religious freedom, and they were happy to have had someone who would be a balance in there,” says the Rev. Johnson Cook. “I think I was a game changer.”

When Mr. Trump nominated Brownback, some were skeptical that he would work for religious freedom for all. A man of faith who was raised Methodist but converted to Catholicism in 2002, he had a conservative track record – including stands against abortion and gay marriage – that concerned Democrats and activists. He squeaked through his Senate confirmation 50-49.

Greg Mitchell, co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, says that skepticism is softening. The group started with just a few dozen people meeting bimonthly. But with Brownback's support, Mr. Mitchell says, it now hosts weekly events with around 100 participants from a wide variety of backgrounds, including Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists.

“They see that he really is advocating for religious freedom for everyone,” says Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Church of Scientology, noting that Brownback visited Rohingya Muslims on his first trip.

More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar (Burma), a Buddhist-majority country, mostly to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh. Brownback, upon his return, wrote that their accounts were worse than anything he’d ever encountered – including on a 2004 visit to Darfur. “The Burmese military ‎and others responsible must be held accountable for these horrific acts,” he said.

This November, Pence took to task Myanmar head of government Aung San Suu Kyi, saying the persecution was “without excuse.” But the Trump administration, which has designated the Islamic State’s aggression toward Christians and other religious minorities as genocide, has declined to follow Congress’s lead in similarly designating Myanmar’s violence toward the Rohingya as genocide.

“The United States, the only superpower in the world right now, must come with some binding resolution,” said Sam Naeem, a Rohingya activist, speaking at the IRFA conference in November.

Whose freedom first?

Proponents of religious freedom evoke lofty notions of America as a shining city on a hill, a country founded at Plymouth Rock for the express purpose of establishing and protecting religious freedom – which they see as a prerequisite of democracy, prosperity, and peace.

“You get religious freedom right, and a lot of other freedoms bloom,” said Brownback at the fall IRFA conference, which was hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington. “You get this one wrong, and a lot of other freedoms contract.”

For example, religiously unfree countries have experienced more than 13 times as many religious terrorist attacks as their religiously free counterparts, according to Nilay Saiya, author of “Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism.”

Critics, however, see religious freedom promotion as at best a misguided enterprise, providing a naively simplistic and potentially detrimental lens on global conflicts. Against a backdrop of a foreign policy that has delivered on conservative Christian priorities – from recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to ceasing global health funding for organizations that support abortion – and is led by a man who once called for a “shutdown” on Muslims entering the US, they question whether the Trump administration is committed to religious freedom as a universal value and whether it’s making any tangible impact.

Take one of the most high-profile cases so far: that of American pastor Andrew Brunson. Mr. Brunson was jailed in Turkey, which – amid a wide-ranging crackdown – issued a bizarre indictment accusing him of spying and links to a 2016 coup. Trump characterized Brunson’s imprisonment as religious persecution in the guise of trumped-up charges, and wielded tweets and tariffs to pressure the increasingly authoritarian government to release him – helping to drive a 40 percent drop in the Turkish lira.

Once Brunson was released in October, the US eased sanctions on Turkey. But another American citizen, Serkan Gölge, whose charges were deemed by the US to be “without credible evidence,” remains in jail. For some, the case of Mr. Gölge, a former NASA contractor with dual Turkish citizenship, illustrates Christian favoritism.

From bark to bite

Other critics say the State Department hasn’t been rigorous enough in going after religious-freedom offenders. Every year, State produces an annual report identifying “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs).

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), created as a watchdog on State’s handling of religious freedom issues, recommended adding seven CPCs in 2018. However, it has little leverage; State heeded only one of those recommendations, adding Pakistan to a list of nine other repeat offenders: China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

What’s more, the State Department has periodically waived sanctions against some CPCs, such as Saudi Arabia, citing “important national interest.”

There are also omissions by both State and USCIRF that critics find troubling. Israel has never been criticized for its treatment of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, wrote former commissioner and Lebanese Catholic Jim Zogby in a letter of dissent when he stepped down in 2017.

The “naming and shaming” approach has largely failed to produce meaningful reforms, Dr. Zogby argues in an interview, saying USCIRF’s yearly report isn’t even taken seriously within the US government, let alone abroad. He’s also deeply concerned about what he sees as a growing ideological bent to USCIRF, particularly among Republican appointees, with a few notable exceptions.

Furthermore, skeptics worry about prioritizing one freedom over others. After all, there is no ambassador at large for freedom of assembly or freedom of the press, points out Dr. Mandaville, who is now a professor at George Mason University. In an environment where national security and other geopolitical concerns often take precedence over human rights issues, highlighting one right can undermine the rest, he adds.

“The more you dilute the set of issues that are designed to fit together … you jeopardize our ability to advance the broader human rights agenda,” says Mandaville, who adds that as the pendulum of human rights has swung toward religious freedom, it’s swung away from promoting LGBT rights around the world, a signature issue of the Obama administration.

If there’s one thing the left and right can agree on within this movement, however, it’s that bipartisan buy-in is key to their credibility and effectiveness.

“If we lose that spirit of bipartisanship – if this thing becomes polarized the way so much of the rest of our politics is polarized,” says former USCIRF commissioner and Princeton professor Robert George, “then we’re going to be of no use.”

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