It’s Time to Focus on Religious Freedom in America’s Foreign PolicyWednesday, April 19, 2017
Congress and the Trump Administration now have a tremendous opportunity in international religious freedom policy.
“We can’t turn a blind eye,” said Rep. Trent Franks during a recent Capitol Hill event, referencing the dramatic rise in religious persecution around the world. The congressman was among the many in attendance at an event hosted by The Religious Freedom Institute and The Institute for Global Engagement, releasing a report titled “U.S. Foreign Policy and International Religious Freedom: Recommendations for the Trump Administration and the U.S. Congress.”
Written by Tom Farr of the Religious Freedom Institute and Dennis Hoover of the Center for Faith and International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement, the report documented key findings and recommendations for a successful United States international religious freedom foreign policy.
“Despite increased attention to religion in U.S. foreign policy in recent years, global levels of religious persecution, violent religious extremism and religion-related conflict remain dangerously high,” read the report’s executive summary. “U.S International Religious Freedom (IRF) policy could be far more effective in addressing these threats to minorities, to regional stability, and to American national security. The Trump Administration and Congress have an extraordinary opportunity, at a low cost, to forge a successful U.S. IRF policy.”
Farr, the president of the RFI, spoke about the crucial importance of administration action on this issue. “At least 75 percent of world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom doesn’t exist,” he said. “The United States isn’t responsible for this state of affairs, but we could do more – for our own children [and] for our grandchildren.”
He added, “There have been a lot of words … a lot of ‘raising of the issue.’ I’m convinced that if the State Department banned using the words ‘raising the issue,’ diplomacy would just stop. But we need to do more than raise the issue.”
Leading the list of recommendations, the report’s authors said that “the president should state clearly and often that U.S. IRF policy will be a national security and minority rights priority for his administration. He should invite other world leaders and nations to join him in advancing IRF as a universal human right necessary for peace and stability.”
In addition, the authors recommended that the Trump Administration “produce a National Security Strategy and Presidential Directive on IRF. It should integrate the IRF Strategy into the National Security Strategy of the United States.”
According to Farr, some things have changed for the better with regard to international religious freedom awareness within the U.S. government.
“The increase in program funding has increased by fivefold,” he said. “It’s not quite where it should be, but it’s good.” He added,
As far as I’m concerned, Knox Thames, the special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia, David Saperstein, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and all the good men and women at the State Department’s Office for International Religious Freedom have started to plan for post-ISIS. If we don’t protect religious freedom after ISIS is defeated, the opportunity for stability will leave with it. I want to commend the Office for International Religious Freedom and Ambassador Saperstein for working very hard on this the last two years. But significant problems remain. I would argue that the Department of State is still highly skeptical of the issue of religion – skeptical of thinking in religious categories. I know this is changing, but it’s not changing fast enough.
Former Congressman Frank Wolf, who now serves as distinguished senior fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, spoke passionately about the pervasive silence around religious persecution:
In Nigeria, 900 churches have been burned, thousands of Christians have been killed, and yet we seldom hear anything about this. In Iraq, Christians are persecuted. ISIS blew up Jonah’s tomb. In Egypt, Coptic Christians face severe persecution. Yet we seldom hear anything about this. There are 3,900 Yazidi girls who are held captive by ISIS and we almost never hear anything about it.
Among other key recommendations, the authors of the report urged President Donald Trump to “nominate quickly a highly qualified and widely respected ambassador-at-large for IRF to mold and lead U.S. policy. Congress should rapidly confirm the nominee.”
The Trump Administration has not yet appointed such an individual, and Wolf had some choice words to say about the delay.
“It’s important to appoint an ambassador swiftly. [Former Ambassador] David Sapterstein did an outstanding job,” Wolf said. “He changed something that had been neglected for a long time.” Wolf reminded listeners that at one point under the Obama Administration, the role of ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom was left vacant for two years and three months.
“Do you think Asia Bibi, imprisoned for her faith in Pakistan, can wait that long?” Wolf asked. “Do you think the Nigerian kidnapped Chibok girls can wait two years? Can they wait that long? Another two years?”
International religious freedom is not an issue that can wait. “I think that most people who supported Trump and most people who didn’t would be in agreement on this issue,” Wolf added.