WASHINGTON—The suppression of people of faith is a global crisis that receives far too little attention, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said on July 16.
Brownback said the Trump administration was committed to countering religious persecution worldwide, in remarks on the opening day of the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department in Washington.
“This administration sees the killing, imprisonments, harassment, and persecution on the basis of religious beliefs around the world,” Brownback said. “And we see it as a global crisis that has received far too little attention—a global crisis that we are determined to reverse.”
While most people in the world profess a faith, 80 percent of people live in a place that restricts religion, Brownback said.
“It is past time to bring down these religious restrictions,” he said.
The three-day conference marks the largest religious freedom event in the world, according to the State Department, and brings together more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders from dozens of countries.
“We’ve got folks from civil society and from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Falun Gong, and other secular backgrounds,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in opening remarks.
“I want to thank everyone here who has committed a part of their life to helping those who are persecuted and to defending the unalienable right to practice one’s religion and follow their conscience and to take care of their soul.”
Pompeo also expressed hope that the conference would inform the work of the recently launched Commission of Unalienable Rights, a committee of experts, activists, and lawmakers tasked to provide the secretary with advice on how to interpret human rights based on the nation’s founding principles and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Spotlight on China
While more than 100 foreign delegations were invited to the gathering, egregious violators of religious liberty like China, Iran, and Pakistan were not.
China has, for the past two decades, been designated by the State Department as a “country of particular concern,” meaning that it engages in ”systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom.”
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaking in a panel discussion at the conference, said that given China’s economic clout, the huge scale of the violations of religious liberty in the country is a “challenge to the conscience of the world.”
“Unless we’re willing to speak out against human rights and violations of religious freedom in China, we lose all moral authority to talk about it any other place in the world,” Pelosi said.
Pompeo, speaking at the release of the department’s annual report on global religious freedom in June, called out the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its “extreme hostility to all religious faiths since its founding.”
“The party demands that it alone be called God,” he said at the time.
“In China, the government’s intense persecution of many faiths—Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists among them—is the norm.”
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who has been a longtime advocate for worldwide religious freedom, said at the conference that the abuses in China is the worst in 30 years.
Among the regime’s transgressions are its co-option of the Catholic church, the mass detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang in internment camps, and the “cultural genocide” of Tibetan Buddhists, Wolf said.
Wolf also referred to the regime’s forcible harvesting of organs from adherents of the spiritual practice Falun Gong who are incarcerated for their beliefs.
“It’s worse now than any time that I’ve been dealing with these issues,” Wolf said.
The situation has deteriorated because the United States—and particularly the business community—has not spoken out enough like it had previously done against the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s, Wolf said.
Pelosi said that after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, she and other lawmakers advocated for China to be stripped of preferential trading status with the United States. But she received significant pushback from the business community, which argued that economic openness would lead to greater liberties.
Thirty years later, this has not eventuated, Pelosi said. Meanwhile, the United States’ trade deficit with China has increased from $5 billion a year to $5 billion a week, she added.
“What they [commercial interest groups] were suggesting didn’t work, but they take no responsibility for it,” Pelosi said.
Wolf said foreign companies that work with the Chinese regime to develop technologies used in its repression of faith groups, such as mass surveillance technology and artificial intelligence, should be held to account.
“No company in the West ought to be cooperating with the Chinese to do this,” he said. “I think they ought to be sued.”
People should bring lawsuits against such companies, and damages should be then awarded to victim groups, such as Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners, Wolf said.
Pelosi supported the proposal, saying companies need to be called out for aiding human rights abuses.
“We have to shine a bright light and say, ‘You are accomplices for very evil actions.’ Do you want to be known for that?” she said.