WASHINGTON — Sam Brownback, the U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, detailed Thursday the ambitions of a new $25 million campaign to protect and restore holy sites and places of worship across the world.
Brownback, head of the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office, testified before the congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom where he shared the vision for the new campaign announced by President Donald Trump last month at the United Nations.
Trump made the announcement during an event he hosted at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Sept. 23, becoming the first president ever to convene a meeting at the U.N. solely on the topic of religious freedom.
During the USCIRF hearing held in the Dirksen Building, Brownback, a former Kansas governor and U.S. senator, said the allocation of $25 million to help protect vulnerable places of worship and holy sites worldwide is “the first time that this has been tried in this way.”
It comes at a time in which attacks on places of worship seem to be occurring with greater frequency as evidenced by attacks in Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Germany, California and Pennsylvania within the last 12 months, in addition to constant attacks on churches and mosques in the Middle East and Asia.
“These new funds will be used to prevent the intentional destruction of religious sites and relics,” Brownback said. “And we're hopeful we can contribute to the meaningful restoration of key cultural heritage sites and places of worship around the world.”
Brownback said the new campaign has been piloted in a way by a number of U.S. ambassadors through The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. The fund was launched in 2001 to help preserve cultural heritage sites.
“I have been to a number of embassies around the world where they have taken me to a place where the ambassador’s fund is being used. Many of them are religious heritage sites,” Brownback explained. “And it’s a matter of great pride for that country where the site’s been renovated and protected.”
Since 2001, the fund has been used for over 1,000 cultural heritage projects worldwide.
“I look at this [new campaign] as a chance to build on that,” Brownback said in response to a question from USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza.
“But again, I honestly hope that this is the small end of the funding but the bigger end of it is us being able to figure out how to source private funding. How do you crowdsource on something like this? How can we identify key sites that ought to be rebuilt and [give to] a legitimate fund that's not going to go into somebody's pocket somewhere?”
“We need to see if we can attract a great deal of capital doing that,” the ambassador continued. “That is my hope. I think we can access far more funds.”
During his testimony, Brownback considered the possibilities of what the new initiative could accomplish. “Imagine what we could do if we restore the Tomb of Jonah, for instance,” the 63-year-old said, mentioning a Christian holy site that was destroyed in 2014 by the Islamic State in northern Iraq.
“When they destroyed it, they filmed it and they put it on the internet to show it to the whole world that we destroyed this site and was something they were very proud that they've done. Well, imagine if we say to the world's terrorist community: ‘You are bent on destruction, but we are going to rebuild. We will rebuild this site and will make it more protected so that this will not happen again.’”
At the State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, the U.S. and over 40 countries signed onto a formal statement calling for the protection of places of worship and holy sites worldwide.
“We commit ourselves to working to prevent violence against places of worship by countering intolerance and discrimination, continuing to support religious groups and other communities that have been subject to terrorist and extremist violence, and moving swiftly to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes,” the statement reads.