The United States is pressing other countries to join its proposed International Religious Freedom Alliance, in what diplomat Sam Brownback calls “the most significant” new human rights initiative in a generation.
“We’re going to call like-minded nations together and ask them to join this alliance and push on the issue of religious freedom and against religious persecution around the world,” Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said at a news briefing earlier this week. “We want to see the iron curtain on religious persecution come down.”
Brownback’s remarks came at a Monday press conference following the “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,” a U.S.-sponsored event on the opening day of the annual U.N. General Assembly. At the event, President Donald Trump pledged an additional $25 million to counter a trend of increasing religious intolerance around the globe.
The president’s chief envoy for that mission is Brownback. Since early 2018, the former Republican governor from the Midwestern state of Kansas has headed the office that he helped establish as a U.S. senator. He was a key sponsor of the 1998 Religious Freedom Act, as Religion News Service has pointed out.
Brownback spoke with VOA after the news conference about what his brief entails — “fighting for religious freedom all around the world for all faiths all the time,” as well as for “people of no faith.”
“We’ll stand up and we’ll do something,” Brownback said of the Trump administration, saying it employs tools ranging from private diplomacy to public designations and “sanctions against countries that persecute people for their faith.”
For instance, the State Department in July publicly designated four Burmese military officials as responsible for “gross human rights violations,” including the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, the Muslim minority group in Myanmar.
Government restrictions on religion have “increased markedly around the world,” according to the Pew Research Center, which began tracking the issue in 2007. The Washington-based center reported this summer that “52 countries, including some in very populous countries such as China, Indonesia and Russia, impose either ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007.” It found increases in the number of states enacting restrictive laws and policies, as well as in religion-related hostilities and violence against individuals.
“Approximately 80% of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted or even banned,” Trump said Monday, using a State Department figure extrapolated from Pew’s research.
Pew does not attempt to calculate the share of people around the world who are affected by such restrictions, a spokeswoman for the center told VOA.
Brownback told VOA that he sees religious freedom, enshrined in both the U.N. Charter and U.S. Constitution, as a harbinger of whether other rights are respected or not.
“When you’re willing to protect a person’s religious freedom, you generally are willing to protect the rest of their rights,” the diplomat said. “If you’re willing to persecute a person for their religious beliefs, you’re generally willing to persecute on a number of other rights.”
Brownback said the United Arab Emirates, while “certainly not perfect,” was a model of religious freedom. “They allow faiths to practice. They allow people to build” houses of worship. “And you have this robust, dynamic, growing economy and a lot of other things moving forward.”
He added that he’s “very hopeful” about Algeria and Sudan, African countries where “there are new governments coming in” to replace oppressive regimes.
The U.S. is supporting “better security at religious institutions, where we see a lot of them destroyed around the world, people killed at these houses of worship,” Brownback said at the press conference. He noted that he’s co-hosting a conference in Morocco next week on preserving religious heritage sites.
The Trump administration, which has strong support among evangelical Christians, has been criticized for favoring certain faith groups over others.
“President Trump was elected on the promise of a ‘complete and utter shutdown’ of Muslim immigration to the U.S.,” Rabbi Jack Moline, who leads the Interfaith Alliance, told USA Today. “Since then, his administration has worked tirelessly to redefine ‘religious freedom’ as a license to discriminate.”
The alliance promotes the separation of church and state.
The role of faith-based initiatives in U.S. foreign policy has risen during the last two decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations, according to scholar Lee Marsden, noting a strong interest in curbing radical Islam after the al-Qaida terrorist attacks in September 2001.