WASHINGTON — The United States State Department hosted its first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this week, a much-anticipated three-day conference that was attended by delegates from over 80 countries including some where there are religious freedom concerns.
Prior the ministerial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the event would be "more than just talk" and the result of the ministerial would be concrete steps of action.
What resulted was the issuance of several documents urging the international community to protect vulnerable religious minorities and abolish laws restricting religious freedom.
In addition, foreign delegations offered their thoughts on the importance of religious freedom, with some providing details on the actions they plan or already have taken to help facilitate the freedom of religion and belief.
Here are 10 highlights from this week's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
1. Potomac Declaration
The ministerial concluded with the release of the Potomac Declaration, a document that calls for the right to religious freedom for everyone everywhere in the world.
Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was enacted over 70 years ago, the Potomac Declaration explains that still about 80 percent of the world continues to live in places where their religious freedom is violated in some form or fashion.
The preamble to the new declaration says that it is time for the international community to "address these challenges directly."
The declaration reads:
"Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.
Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.
A person's conscience is inviolable. The right to freedom of conscience, as set out in international human rights instruments, lies at the heart of religious freedom.
Persons are equal based on their shared humanity. There should be no discrimination on account of a person's religion or belief. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Citizenship or the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms should not depend on religious identification or heritage.
Coercion aimed at forcing a person to adopt a certain religion is inconsistent with and a violation of the right to religious freedom. The threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or nonbelievers to adopt different beliefs, to recant their faith, or to reveal their faith is entirely at odds with freedom of religion.
Religious freedom applies to all individuals as right-holders. Believers can exercise this right alone or in community with others, and in public or private. While religions do not have human rights themselves, religious communities and their institutions benefit through the human rights enjoyed by their individual members.
Persons who belong to faith communities and nonbelievers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies. A state's establishment of an official religion or traditional faith should not impair religious freedom or foster discrimination toward adherents of other religions or nonbelievers.
The active enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief encompasses many manifestations and a broad range of practices. These can include worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
Parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
Religion plays an important role in humanity's common history and in societies today. The cultural heritage sites and objects important for past, present, and future religious practices should be preserved and treated with respect."
2. Plan of Action
In addition to the declaration, an accompanying Plan of Action document was issued to serve as a guide for countries on how they can act to promote religious freedom and act to assist and protect threatened religious minorities.
The plan highlights an extensive list of recommendations that are broken up into five sections — defending the right to religious freedom, confronting legal limitations, responding to genocide and mass atrocities, preserving the cultural heritage of religious minorities, and responding to threats to religious freedom.
Among the many suggestions, the list goes as far as to say that anti-blasphemy laws, which are often used in some nations by majority populations to persecute religious minorities, should be abolished.
The plan calls for countries to allow religious communities to enjoy a wide range of freedoms, including the ability to assemble, print and distribute literature and not to have burdensome regulations that hinder those freedoms. Additionally, the document urges countries not to suppress religious freedom under the guise of prohibiting national security.
"I'm not aware of any set of documents issued by any state in modern history that so comprehensively and practically address the actual implications of a real commitment to religious liberty as these documents do," Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser to the Trump administration and a religious freedom advocate, told The Christian Post. "They are truly historic."
3. Statements of Concern
In addition to the Potomac Declaration and Plan of Action, the State Department also released six statements of concern that were signed by other nations.
Three of the statements outright condemned the terrible religious freedom situations going on in China, Myanmar and Iran.
China has long faced concerns over its mistreatment and imprisonment of religious minority communities, including Uighurs Muslims, Hui Muslims, Kazakh Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and Falun Gong.
The statement of concern on China condemns those abuses and calls on the Chinese government to protect the religious freedom of all individuals and respect the rights of all religious groups. The statement was co-signed by Canada, Kosovo and United Kingdom.
Human rights activists have also condemned Myanmar for what they say has been a genocide against Rohingya Muslims and Kachin Christians.
A statement condemning abuses in the Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states of Myanmar was signed by 10 nations including the U.S.
A statement condemning Iran's treatment and discrimination of Baha'is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims was signed by Canada, Djibouti, Kosovo, United Arab Emirates and the U.S.
The three other statements of concern focused on underlying problems throughout the world that have led to the restriction of religious freedom in many countries.
Twenty-five nations signed onto a statement concerning religious freedom repression by non-state actors and terrorist groups.
Along with the documents, Vice President Mike Pence announced new U.S. government initiatives that aim to help protect religious freedom and help persecuted religious communities around the world.
During his keynote speech Thursday, Pence told the world about the creation of the new Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program. The program will better facilitate partnerships with community organizations, faith leaders, philanthropists and others looking to help persecuted believers around the world with the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development.
Additionally, Pence announced the formation of the International Religious Freedom Fund. The U.S. is encouraging other nations to help support the fund and will be used to help persecuted and threatened religious minority communities.
"America is proud to launch and support this program and we're earnest in our appeal to all the nations gathered here and around the world that you might join us in this fund," Pence said during his speech. "Together, we will champion the cause of liberty as never before."
5. Pence Promises Sanctions Against Turkey
One of the highlights from the ministerial was Pence's remarks about Turkey's detention of imprisoned American Pastor Andrew Brunson.
Brunson, who has ministered in Turkey for over two decades and was arrested in October 2016, was held for over a year-and-a-half in prison on trumped-up charges of terrorism. During the ministerial, however, news broke that Brunson would be removed from prison and placed under house arrest.
Since the 50-year-old Brunson is considered by many government officials to be a political hostage, Pence assured before the 80 foreign delegations that NATO member Turkey would face "significant sanctions" should it decide not to free Brunson and send him home to the United States.
"To President Erdoğan and the Turkish government, on behalf of the president of the United States of America, release Pastor Andrew Brunson now or be prepared to face the consequences,'" Pence said. "If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free."
President Donald Trump followed up on Pence's remarks by tweeting that Turkey would face "large sanctions" for detaining Brunson.
6. Survivors and Family Members Share Their Stories
Several survivors of religious persecution and family members of those imprisoned or killed for their faith spoke during the first two days of the ministerial.
Included in the family members who spoke about their loved ones was Brunson's daughter, Jacqueline Furnari.
"It is important to note that during these three [hearing] dates, there has not been one prosecution witness that has been able to provide one shred of evidence that support their ridiculous testimony — a fact that my father pointed out during the May 7 trial date and a fact that none of the judges on the panel seem to care about," Furnari said. "The head judge personally told my father that all the prosecution's witness testimony is simply being taken as truth therefore there is no need for any evidence."
Ji Hyeona, a Christian North Korean defector, spoke about the abuse she faced growing up under the Kim regime.
She recalled a five-hour interrogation in which she was tortured and questioned about believing in Christ and owning a small Bible that her mother smuggled into the country for her.
Hyeona fled the country four times and was repatriated back to North Korea three times.
She recalled being sentenced to a prison camp for over a year for her defection. She finally escaped and made it to South Korea in 2007.
Tahrir Hamut, a Uighur Muslim poet and filmmaker, told the ministerial that he was sentenced to three years in a labor camp in China. He warned that over 1 million Uighurs are in Chinese labor camps.
Additionally, Jamie Powell, the wife of pastor and missionary John Cao, also spoke. Cao is imprisoned in China on a seven-year sentence on false charges of human trafficking.
"It appears to me that John was set up for his arrest because of his faith-driven work," Powell told the ministerial Tuesday morning.
Uzbekistan's presence at the ministerial was notable because it is listed by the State Department as a "country of particular concern" when it comes to the issue of religious freedom since 2006.
According to the State Department, Uzbekistan law allows for the restriction of religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, social order or morality. The law also requires religious groups to officially register with the government and "declares religious activities of unregistered groups to be illegal." Additionally, Uzbekistan bans a number of religious groups it identifies as "extremist."
Human rights organizations have also voiced concern about the social pressure being put on individuals who convert to Christianity. According to the State Department, Uzbeks who converted to Christianity have suffered harassment and discrimination.
A delegation led by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov participated in the ministerial and announced initiatives the government has undertaken that aim to promote religious freedom, protect believers from discrimination and "allow for a peaceful coexistence for all representatives of Uzbekistan's multinational society."
On Friday, Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan hosted Kamilov to discuss Uzbekistan's commitment to religious freedom under the leadership of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and the recent steps the government has taken "to improve religious freedom as discussed with Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback."
"Deputy Secretary Sullivan commended Uzbekistan for its progress in improving labor rights and efforts to strengthen respect for human rights, and noted that there is more work to be done to continue to institutionalize reform," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. "The deputy secretary also thanked the foreign minister for Uzbekistan's regional leadership and efforts in Afghanistan to advance the peace process and support the Afghan people."
Labeled as a Tier 2 country of concern for religious freedom by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Bahrain announced at the ministerial the creation of an ambassador at-large position for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom within the ministry of foreign affairs.
"We envision this role as not only helping us tell our own story but also learn from others and advocate for religious harmony and coexistence across the Middle East," a delegate from Bahrain said at the ministerial.
The delegate also suggested that there should be an effort to "intensify the documentation and preservation of religious minorities in the Middle East" to help ensure that the future generations are able to enjoy the religious diversity in the region. Additionally, the Bahrain delegate called for an exchange program for students of different religious backgrounds across the world to allow them to better understand different religious traditions.
"We are prepared to join in and assist in that effort," he said.
Bahrain has been at the forefront of promoting religious tolerance in recent years. In 2017, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa signed the "Bahrain Declaration" calling for an end to religious extremism and violence.
"In Bahrain, under the leadership of King Hamad, we have tremendous pride in our centuries-long history of religious diversity and harmony," the delegate said. "King Hamad is keen to preserve and continue Bahrain's efforts in promoting religious freedom. His majesty established the King Hamad Global Center for Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence in March 2018 and launched the King Hamad Chair for Interfaith Dialogue and Peaceful Coexistence at Sapienza University in Rome."
Kazakhstan is also labeled by USCIRF as a Tier 2 country of concern and had a delegation in attendance at the ministerial.
While many foreign delegations didn't directly address whether they would support the call to action in their speeches, Kazakhstan's delegate voiced its solidarity with the Potomac Plan of Action.
"We are confident that implementation of these documents will be strongly supported by [the] international community in promoting religious freedom worldwide," a delegate from Kazakhstan said during a plenary session.
It's no secret that persecution ran rampant in Iraq when the Islamic State took over large swaths of territory in the Nineveh region of Iraq in 2014, forcing Christians and other religious minorities to flee their homes or face death at the hands of the jihadi death cult.
Although the world was horrified by the systemic killings, enslavement, rape, torture and genocide inflicted in Iraq, the terrorist group has largely been pushed out of its strongholds and Christians and other communities are in the process of rebuilding their ravished communities.
A delegate from Iraq told the ministerial that the people of Iraq have "rejected" the practices of the Islamic State. Iraq is also listed as a USCIRF Tier 2 country of concern for religious freedom.
"We were able to stand in one line against this organization and our own force with all types [continued] in the fight against ISIS until we liberated the areas that were under occupation of this terrorist organization with assistance and aid of international coalition," a delegate from Nineveh said.
"The Iraqi government took many steps and measurements to [promote] human rights and refusing discrimination based on ethnicities and religions. We reaffirm our commitment to defend all Iraqis without any discrimination based on ethnicities or religion. We guarantee the liberty of all our people to practice their beliefs. We call upon all international organizations to continue providing assistance to the government of Iraq and its fight against terrorism."