WASHINGTON — Respected religious freedom scholars have released a list of recommendations that the Donald Trump administration and the United States Congress should take seriously in order to better equip the U.S. government to combat rising threats to international religious liberties through diplomacy.
On Monday, the the D.C-based Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) and the Center on Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement held a briefing on Capitol Hill for congressional staffers in which they rolled out a new policy brief titled "U.S. Foreign Policy and International Religious Freedom: Recommendations for the Trump Administration and the U.S. Congress."
The brief was authored by RFI President and Georgetown University professor Thomas Farr and IGE Vice President for Research and Publications Dennis Hoover. The briefing included remarks by Farr and Hoover, as well as remarks by Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Additionally, Republican Reps. Trent Franks of Arizona, Bill Flores of Texas and former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney, who is now a Congressman from Florida, also spoke about the importance of using U.S. foreign relations to pressure other nations to protect the rights of religious minorities.
The brief comes as 75 percent of the world's population lives in countries where there is virtually no freedom of religion.
"The United States is not responsible for this state of affairs but I would argue that we could do more and must do more, not only for those people but for our own children and grandchildren, for our own national security, for our own fundamental interests," Farr said during the briefing.
Included in the brief are nine sets of recommendations for the Trump White House, National Security Council, Department of Defense and State Department to consider.
1. Trump should set "clear policy priority" for international religious freedom and commit the institutional and financial resources necessary to succeed.
The brief asserts that the president should "state clearly" to the world that religious freedom is "vital" to U.S. interests and the interests of all nations, "especially those in which religious violence and persecution are destroying societies, uprooting minorities and stunting economic growth."
The brief calls on the president to publicly assert that international religious freedom policies will be expanded under his administration and that human rights issues will be "raised regularly" in bilateral discussions, even in discussions with U.S. allies, such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, where blasphemy laws and other laws targeting religious minorities are on the books.
The brief wants international religious freedom to be integrated into U.S. strategies in order to "reduce religious persecution, protect minorities, counter violent religious extremism and conflict," and stabilize post-conflict societies.
"President Trump should speak jointly with other world leaders about religious freedom as a universal human right and a necessity for peace, security and stability," the brief states.
It also calls for Trump's National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster, to name a senior National Security Council Adviser on international religious freedom policy.
2. Establish an inter-agency task force to create an international religious freedom policy strategy.
The brief's second set of recommendations calls for Trump to produce a "presidential directive" on international religious freedom.
But before issuing the directive, the brief explains that McMaster should announce an inter-agency task force focusing on international religious freedom, which would be co-chaired by the State Department's ambassador at-large for international religious freedom and the aforementioned National Security Council advisor on international religious freedom.
The task force would be responsible for creating a national security strategy for international religious freedom policy, which would incorporate aspects of counterterrorism, political and economic development, post-conflict stabilization and justice.
"The strategy should lead to a presidential national security directive on IRF policy," the brief states. "The strategy should be incorporated into strategic plans of all executive agencies with foreign policy responsibilities."
"The strategy should emphasize the critical importance of ongoing IRF education across all national security institutions and in interagency contexts," it added.
3. State Department should give greater authority and resources to the Office of International Religious Freedom.
Farr said that one of the most important recommendations in the brief is for Trump to quickly nominate and secure a Senate confirmation of a highly qualified ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
Under President Barack Obama, that post was vacant for the first 845 days of his presidency. Farr is optimistic that Trump will make that nomination by the spring or early summer.
Along with nominating an ambassador for international religious freedom, the brief calls on the administration to "elevate the status of the position of special advisor for religious minorities" to "special envoy."
It also calls for the administration to improve relationships between the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom and other religion-related offices in the department and also consider placing other offices, such as the special envoy on anti-semitism, under the authority of the ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
The brief also calls for the Office of International Religious Freedom to increase its staff to no less than 50 full-time foreign service officers and civil servants, which can be achieved by consolidating other religion-related offices under its umbrella.
The brief also suggests that the State Department should request no less than $30 million per year from Congress for programs that will advance religious freedom and counter religious extremism.
Additionally, the brief wants each regional State Department bureau to develop religious freedom strategies as part of their annual program planning. Additionally, each bureau should establish an international religious freedom officer position to make it easier for each regional bureau to collaborate with the Office of International Religious Freedom.
4. Develop a mandatory international religious freedom training curriculum for "all American diplomats."
The brief calls on the State Department to immediately implement a component of the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed last December that requires the State Department to provide "mandatory training on religious freedom for all Foreign Service officers."
"I would argue that still, the Department of State is still highly skeptical on the issue of [religious freedom]. ... They are skeptical of thinking in religious categories. They may be anti-religious or they may be not anti-religious," Farr said. "It is almost in the DNA not to think about religion, particularly about religious freedom. I know this is changing but it is not changing fast enough."
Andrew Bennett, the first and only Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom, spoke at the briefing and said that there tends to be a misunderstanding in Western intelligence communities that religion should be pushed to the "private sphere."
"Those of us who have gone through secular universities, or secular education system, for a very long period of time, we have seen ideas of religion, faith literacy, religious literacy pushed squarely to the private sphere," he said. "The absolute privatization of religion in Western democracies has had a number of impacts. One of the impacts is that when it comes to the formation of liberal beliefs ... there is a lack of knowledge about why the people of faith act the way they do."
"We have to combat indifference and ignorance around the role of religion in our own countries if we are going to advance religious freedom internationally," he said.
5. Mandate the allocation of embassy resources to engage religious actors and communities.
The brief calls for the president to empower U.S. Missions abroad to advance religious freedom by issuing a presidential letter of instruction to U.S. ambassadors to allocate resources to advance religious freedom.
"Require the development of a religious freedom strategy as part of the annual program planning of all U.S. missions abroad," the brief states. "Expand and institutionalize what are currently regional IRF training initiatives begun under the previous IRF Ambassador."
6. Reenergize attention to religious freedom within U.S. programs promoting democracy and human rights.
The brief calls for the State Department to integrate religious freedom into all U.S. democracy planning and programs, including programs at the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Increase support, via foreign aid and democracy funding, for religious and secular nongovernmental organizations around the world who seek to advance religious freedom as part of democratic development," the brief suggests. "Where appropriate, frame religious freedom as an issue of diversity, minority inclusion, and cultural preservation, especially when engaging audiences that may be less receptive to arguments grounded in human rights or national security considerations."
7. Make strategic communications and public diplomacy more attentive to religious freedom.
The brief calls on the State Department to provide additional training as to improve awareness and fluency regarding religion for American foreign policy officials responsible for strategic communications.
Additionally, it calls for an increase in the amount of religious freedom programing that is aired on Voice of America and other publicly funded media channels and calls for an increase in the frequency with which government officials consult with religious leaders, religious freedom scholars and other nongovernmental experts.
"Revive the Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group within the State Department's Federal Advisory Committee established by the previous administration," the brief states.
8. Engage multilateral institutions and international law related to religious freedom.
The brief calls on the administration to increase attention at the United Nations to issues of religious persecution and religious extremism by placing a senior official specializing in international religious freedom to be an advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley.
The brief also advises the State Department to "leverage the growing network of foreign IRF-focused institutions that are eager to partner with the United States" and calls for the administration to support coalitions of like-minded countries and multilateral bodies devoted to international religious freedom.
"Expand programs in key countries to educate religious groups and lawyers about victims' rights under international law and about complaint and reporting mechanisms available to them within international institutions," the brief explains.
9. Work closely with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Lastly, the brief calls on the State Department to work with USCIRF, which is a federal commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that is made up of various religious freedom experts appointed by the president or congressional leaders from each party.
The brief calls on USCIRF to "publicize the administration's progress toward integrating international religious freedom policy into the mainstream of foreign policy."
The commission issues an annual report every May 1 that offers recommendations for the State Department when it comes to countries that are worst violators of human rights.