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State Department religious freedom summit ends with commitments, critiques

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers closing remarks with Ambassador Brownback at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 26, 2018 at the U.S. Department of State, in Washington. Photo by State Department/Creative Commons

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The State Department concluded its first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Thursday (July 26), with declarations promising further efforts to reduce religious persecution, even as critics said they are waiting to see its statements turned into actions.

Closing the meeting of some 350 government officials, religious freedom advocates and others from more than 80 nations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to an action plan, dubbed the Potomac Declaration, that lays out “concrete ways” to protect religious groups around the world.

“The Potomac Declaration is a formal affirmation that says right up front that the United States takes religious freedom seriously, that we will work with others around the world to help those under attack for their beliefs, and that we expect leaders around the world to make it their priority as well,” Pompeo said in a news conference.

The plan of action accompanying the declaration calls for the repeal of “inherently subjective” anti-blasphemy laws abroad and the protection of the publication of religious materials. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called the meeting’s work a demonstration of “a moment where the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down.”

In addition, 25 countries co-signed a statement condemning abuses of religious freedom by terrorist groups, while fewer than a dozen added their names to statements condemning religious restrictions in China, Iran and Myanmar.

But Trump administration supporters focused on the Potomac documents, speaking of them in glowing terms. Johnnie Moore, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as well as an ad hoc group of evangelical advisers to President Trump, said the ministerial delivered “religious freedom’s Magna Carta.”


RELATED: Pence, at religious freedom summit, threatens Turkey over detained US pastor


The meeting was welcomed by groups not aligned with the Trump White House as well as some experts who have disagreed with the administration.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who did not attend the ministerial, expressed hope that the summit could help religious minorities like them who have faced restrictions. More than two dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses have been detained in Russia and dozens more are imprisoned in Korea as conscientious objectors.

“We’re certainly hopeful that the things that are happening to Jehovah’s Witnesses — or anybody else whose freedoms are being restricted — that it gets noticed and that it could improve for everyone,” said Jarrod Lopes, a communications representative for the Witnesses.

Imam Mohamed Magid at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Imam Mohamed Magid, the leader of All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia who was at the ministerial, said he appreciated in particular Brownback’s push for a global alliance of leaders to address religious freedom, adding that he hopes there will be regional alliances on the continents of Africa and Asia.

“We have to have people around the world who are activists,” said Magid, who noted the ministerial was the largest gathering of religious people from other countries that he can recall attending in the United States.

Peter Henne, who teaches political science at the University of Vermont and has questioned the Trump administration’s treatment of Muslims, said the summit seemed to produce substantive discussions.

“This was not the Magna Carta for religious freedom, but it wasn’t just a sham for evangelicals,” said Henne, who followed the summit on Twitter.

But Henne appeared skeptical that the discussions would bear fruit: “The Trump administration has promised a lot since the election about helping persecuted Christians, helping people around the world generally, and it hasn’t done a whole lot yet.”

Other critics of the White House sharply contrasted Trump policies with the summit’s talk of religious freedom.

“This administration is led by Islamophobes, runs internment camps for children separated from parents seeking asylum from persecution, and has failed to deliver promised reconstruction funds for Iraqi Christians and other minorities,” said Shaun Casey, who launched the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs under former Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The conference produced a cloud of words that in no way changed facts on the ground regarding either the Trump Administration’s dreadful record on religious freedom or the behavior of other nations.”


RELATED: Brownback opens religious freedom summit with plea to fight persecution


Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said the meeting showed the State Department was putting religious freedom on par with other interests, such as security and trade.

“What received scant mention, however, is a fundamental principle that’s been a key to America’s success in this realm – that is the healthy distance between religion and state,” she said. “It’s our abiding hope that as our country seeks to promote religious freedom abroad, we not forget the principles which have made religious liberty possible at home.”

Brownback seemed ready to counter that criticism, saying at the news conference that protecting religious freedom is a “safe space” for government that can also lead to greater economic growth and less terrorism.

“You have a right to religious freedom, to do as you choose with your own soul, period,” he said. “That’s what we are pushing, and we think that’s fully consistent with separation of church and state. The government’s role in this is to protect the right.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

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  • The government’s role in this country and all countries should be to protect your right to a private (private) religious experience. When governments seek to protect religious groups, they will find themselves protecting ISIS, Taliban, Boko Haram, Nazis, the KKK, the Jim Jones-type cults, every group devoted to racism, and every crackpot theology ever devised. The idea that the governments can protect good groups without protecting bad groups is just silly. Governments can best promote freedom of religion by promoting freedom from religious groups.

    Say what? In a Musliim-majority place the people of other faiths need protection from Islam. In Israel the people of other faiths need protection from Judaism. In America the people of other faiths need protection from crazy Evangelicals. We need to be protecting the INDIVIDUAL by keeping a lid on the groups (which are often obnoxious and only more so when they think they are the “majority”).

  • Good question! Why, in fact, has “the State Department [been] putting religious freedom on par with … security and trade” – if not for global domination over Russia & China?! And you think it’s all for real – for “religious freedom”?!

    Now see, THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation had foretold that this day in Babylon The Great would come. And come, it has.

  • The “and all countries” demonstrates a sort of cultural and religious imperialism.

    Among the countries where a secular government or American-style freedom of religion would be looked as though it landed from another planet would be almost all Islamic countries and most of Eastern Europe.

    Non-westerners do not share the western talking heads class disdain for religion, do not see religion as an impediment to progress, and have little or no problem with government and religion working hand-in-hand.

  • Good points. Religious Freedom also includes the concept of being free from religion! The beliefs of the Atheist also need protection! AS well as people of the same religion who don’t accept the same teachings. Homosexual rights, abortion rights, right to decide to use or not use contraception, marriage rights, rights to adopt, all need to be protected since they are all part of a person’s belief system.

  • Perhaps we would agree that freedom “of” religion and freedom “from” (other people’s) religion are actually the same thing.

  • Religious freedom only includes the concept of being free from religion in secular countries – France and Mexico are examples.

    In a non-establishment country like the USA it includes the freedom to abstain from religion.

    In many countries the first notion would be considered bizarre.

  • Most of the issues (world wide) have to do with the fundamentalist members of the world’s religions.

  • So long as you don’t include freedom from being negatively impacted by others living according to their religions’ rules, sure. You don’t have a moral right to demand that devout Jewish butchers sell pork or be open on Saturday; or that a Catholic pharmacist sell birth control or abortifacients; or that a Christian baker or photographer to provide support for a gay “marriage.”

  • You are saying in your first sentence that no one should have freedom from being negatively impacted by others living according to their religions’ rules? Is that correct?

  • I’m saying that you should not have the right to force others to act in ways that violate their religions because it inconveniences you. Beyond that, I think my examples are self-explanatory. I can add the further examples that pro-life medical practitioners shouldn’t be required to perform abortions, and Catholic adoption charities shouldn’t be required to place children with gay couples.

  • If my religion says you should be executed or imprisoned by me for blaspheming my God or Prophet, or that “me and my male buddies” should punish your wife on the street for not dressing to our religious standards, or that your daughters are to be prevented by me from attending school, or that we might throw your gay son off a tall building if we can catch him—–would that stuff be okey-dokey? I mean, it would not be an “inconvenience” to you if I happen to be Muslim and impose any old thing I can find in Islamic lore on you and the rest of society, would it?

    It happens that I am not Muslim, but certain Christians in the USA can and would be just as nutty if we let them. How do you suppose we had plenty of Bibles and slavery at the same time in this country for several hundred years?

    The root (root) of what you want to enforce is the same root as Islam. People will be well-advised to vote you down. Eventually they will (again), very possibly your own kids and grandkids after they become sick ENOUGH of the fruit of what you are peddling.

  • Your examples are different in kind from the ones I gave. Yours involve preventing people from acting, mine involve requiring people to act.

  • Not at all. I could very well be a conservative fundamentalist Muslim on a mission from God (in my head) and requiring you to do all kinds of things. Why do you suppose the guys in Muslim-majority places line up in rows with their heads on the ground and their butts in the air several times a day to repeat falsehood in socially-forced “prayer”? Because they like it?

    You are the beneficiary of the blessed separation of religion and state in this country, so far. But you’re on your way to being completely captured. That “religious freedom” you think you are getting is just a ruse for the straight-upward transfer of both wealth and power. Christians climbing on the Trumpism wagon is quite a thing——utterly hypnotized, as they are, over wedding bakers to the point of having no care at all whether or how any average young couple could possibly pay a hospital bill for just having a baby. As I have told many people, I’m glad to be old at this point, rather than young. The average youngster in America today is having his/her future torn down at breakneck speed and can’t even be aware (as a youngster) of how much he/she is losing. Most of them are never going to be in the wedding cake business and will wonder why Churchians completely gave the country over to the Goldman Sachs set over such a trivial matter.

  • Yes, they are different in kind. It’s the difference between PREVENTING, say, an old-time Hindi widow from performing suttee and REQUIRING, say, a Quaker to serve as a soldier in active combat.

  • That’s why I often preface the phrase “religious freedom” with the qualifier “constitutional.”

    That way we’re NOT getting scammed by everything the scraggly cat dragged in (like gay marriage), and calling all that mess “religious freedom.”

  • There are conscientious objector exceptions for people DRAFTED into the military (when we had a draft). I don’t recall that anyone was ever DRAFTED into private occupations of their choice. A pharmacist who does not want to perform and deal with the full range of pharmaceuticals should be a structural engineer. No one ever purported to make him or her be a pharmacist, but once he/she is, there are reasonable expectations that such a person does not balk at fully serving the public. Once again, the larger argument about this is that you are on the side of stoking people on “religious freedom” until they are hypnotized into supporting tax cuts for Trump and Mnuchin. It’s a gigantic con and most of church has fallen for it.

  • So easy to earn your Salvation.

    My Youtube video on this topic:-
    https://youtu.be/lv3Z499GdvI
    How easy is it to gain Salvation?

    This Dark Age is the best to attain Salvation and to work for God by praising Him through Preaching Gospel. This is how it is done:-

    The world is full of hypocrites who give sugar-coated sermons of falsehoods to lure people into their nets or make a huge following of religious or non-religious fanatics that can lead to riots or civil wars as we have experienced in India during the partition in 1947 and in 1984. Such fanatics could be compared with fast flowing rivers or a sea that you have to cross with Christ/Innerman/Satguru within your heart.

    Now, our physical body is the Temple of God and its Royal Priest is Christ, the Innerman that you have to renew every day. The one sitting in the Synagogues made by human hands is called a Priest in Yahweh, the Lord of Nature and of the natural once-born man, who teaches the moral laws of Adam, a Noble Man written by Moses called Scriptures. Thus, the Royal Priests are of our Supernatural Father of souls God, Elohim, Allah, Parbrahm, etc. and they sing the Praises of Him by Preaching Gospel that leads to the Royal Kingdom of God that has a Narrow Gate for the solitary Virgin Brides of Christ Jesus.

    You have heard of Jesus sleeping at the stern of the Boat and there was a Tempest or storm that frightened his Brethren especially the once-born Peter instigated by the doubting Judas Iscariot, who woke Him up. Jesus rebuked the storm and told his Brethren of their little faith in Christ. What we learn from this is that your physical body is the boat and when you put Christ in your heart (stern) to lead your life using Gospel Preaching as the Oars to ply the Boat of Life, then you easily reach your Goal of Life, which is Salvation and your boat doesn’t sink into the River of Falsehoods called KOORR, KUFFAR, etc.

    So, you have got the Boat and your Innerman is the Christ that sets you Free of your relatives and world at large to enable you to seek the Narrow Gate leading to the Royal Vineyard of our Father where He has Planted the True Vine Christ Jesus, our Anointed Royal High Priest for grafting ourselves for the Life-giving daily Bread, the Tasty Flesh of Jesus or what came out of the Mouth of Jesus. Then, we digest His Flesh by Chewing it with the teeth of logical reasoning within our own heart and Preach Gospel, which is plying the Oars, to fish spiritual Men who are the masters of their own destiny as the born-blind person of John 9 was. Remember, His Word is a Double-edged Sword called Khanda in Punjabi, that brings you Salvation and to those who are pre-destined of our Father.

    Isn’t it so easy to gain Salvation? Spiritually Blind people follow others like the prostitutes and not the solitary Virgin Brides with Christ at their Stern.

    If you like my views, why not share it with our Brethren?

  • Gay people have religious freedom, too, including the freedom to get married, whether you like it or not.

  • You are perfectly willing to inconvenience gay people, to get attention for yourself.

  • Marriage is a legal contract not a religious one! It is about providing couples with legal rights, parental rights, survivors rights, death benefits, power of attorney, shared property rights etc. Denying gay couples the right to marriage was morally and legally wrong.

  • “So long as you don’t include freedom from being negatively impacted by others living according to their religions’ rules, sure. ”

    That is a clunky phrase showing no understanding of religious freedom. What you are looking for is the very opposite of religious freedom. Its a right to impose on others based on your personal beliefs. A privilege to attack others in service of your faith.

    I have every right to demand products sold by a vendor in open commerce regardless of the religious beliefs of the individual involved. Nobody has to navigate the religious beliefs and prejudices of vendors for anything sold openly to the public. Religious freedom involves a right to that as well.

    1

  • That is a garbage version of religious freedom. Religious freedom means nobody ever has to care or be forced to care about the religious beliefs of others as it impacts on their daily life. We don’t have to be inconvenienced by your religious belief ever. Accomodation to one’s faith does not give rise to a right to attack others in service of it.

  • The examples are the same. They are of forcing others to abide by one’s own religious belief.

  • Such a waste of time and money! And all vitiated by the reality of the Great kibosh.

  • How long you & me have gone out together and you still don’t know this about me?

    I. Do. Not. Believe. In. No. Rapture.

    Nor did Jesus and any of His 1st apostles and disciples.

    Hail Satan.

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marriage

    “Marriage, also called matrimony or wedlock, is a socially or ritually recognised union between spouses that establishes rights and obligations between those spouses, as well as between them and any resulting biological or adopted children and affinity (in-laws and other family through marriage). The definition of marriage varies around the world not only between cultures and between religions, but also throughout the history of any given culture and religion, evolving to both expand and constrict in who and what is encompassed, but typically it is principally an institution in which interpersonal relationships, usually sexual, are acknowledged or sanctioned. In some cultures, marriage is recommended or considered to be compulsory before pursuing any sexual activity. When defined broadly, marriage is considered a cultural universal. A marriage ceremony is known as a wedding.”

    So, thanks to English being an incredibly ambiguous/equivocal language, “marriage” describes multiple things.

    Several states set about providing same sex couples with legal rights, parental rights, survivors rights, death benefits, power of attorney, shared property rights, etc..

    It was not legally wrong, and the regulation of marriage was one of the rights reserved to the states by the 10th amendment.

    It certainly was not morally wrong in Islam, 85-95% of Christianity, and orthodox Judaism.

    So, Justice Kennedy found an aphorism in a fortune and fabricated a whole right out of thin air.

  • Every law comports with somebody’s religious belief.

    As long as it is passed by the proper process, it matters not a whit.

  • In our version of religious freedom we are free to join, not join, laud, or disdain religion.

    Sometimes, because that permits religion into the public square, it may involve being inconvenienced.

  • So you are saying that any medical professional that doesn’t want to participate in performing abortions should find another profession? That any, say, Jewish restaurateur that doesn’t want to cater a meeting of the KKK should sell the restaurant and go into financial planning? Wait, that might entail being hired to help with the investment accounts for some other anti-Jewish organization.

    There are many professions whose possible customers, clients, patients, whatever, can be involved in activities that the professionals consider morally abhorrent, and those professionals should not be required to be accessories to those activities.

  • 1) I would not have joined your original comments for the purpose of disputing them. We have to remember that we are in this discussion because you joined mine for the purpose of disputing them.

    2) I am not going to agree with you that “religious” beliefs in a blanket usage are special to the point of “professionals” carving out exceptions to the human rights of “customers, clients, patients, whatever”.

    3) I am also not going to agree with you that “religious” beliefs are special to the point of being the sole and final arbiter of what is “morally abhorrent”.

    4) You may win your desired interpretation in courts of law going forward. Please try to remember you are only achieving this result from God doing a political “work” which could not have been accomplished without the machinations of Vladimir Putin and white “Evangelicals” falling deep into blind admiration for liars and lying on nearly every subject. Those of your new religious leader for America are documented in thousands already.

    5) Now, can you please go away from me?

  • I believe you did this tapdance prior to blocking me.

    Why, prithy, do you enter discussion groups and then get angry when folks discuss?

    Do you believe this to be the “FriendlyGoat Soapbox”?

  • 1) the point of having the option to respond to posts is so that people can respond. You were free to choose not to respond to me post, just as you are free to ignor this one.

    2) Professionals aren’t “carving out exceptions to human rights” of customers, because there is no human right to demand that any business engage with others. The “carving out,” goes in the opposite direction, as legal restrictions are placed on people’s right to do business — or not — with whomever they please, for whatever reason. Some of those restrictions make sense, but not when they require individuals to support activities that violate their conscience. THOSE restrictions violate the 1st Amendment protection of our right to freely exercise our religion.

    3) You may disagree with me on the importance of religious beliefs, but Americans at the time of the ratification of the Bill of Rights didn’t. Thats why religious beliefs and expression have your “privileged status” in the 1st Amendment.

    4) That particular wholly unsubstantiated conspiracy theory has no particular relevance to the correctness of my argument. I will say, though, that you’ve been giving way too much credence to the constant stream of breathless pronouncements from the MSM(D).

    5) Feel free not to respond to this if you wish to abandon the debate.

  • Doug, I was raised in church, spent the first 40 years of my life continuously in several different ones. My family had Republican roots, and the first 20 years of my career was spent steeped in Chamber of Commerce / Heritage Foundation type justifications for their preferences.

    Something I finally learned is that religious groups do not have “consciences” and business advocacy groups do not either. Certain individuals do, but they cannot develop them without experiencing freedom from being brainwashed. You may be running with both of those tribes for the rest of your life. For me, I will quote you George W. Bush who said of politics and Washington after he left them, “I crawled out of that swamp once and I am not crawling back in.” Personally, I have seen enough of political conservatism up close and I am not returning to the “pretend” life involved in trying to fit in those groups. I’m old and I just don’t have to be a Trumpie for family, for a church group or for a boss.

    You are absolutely free to drive around the comment sections, shooting hokum out the windows at people who express ideologies not your own. Your kids and grandkids will come to bitterly regret what your movement is tearing down.

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