Former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback is “encouraged” by the Biden State Department's statements on international religious freedom thus far as Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called religious freedom a "co-equal" right.
Brownback, who served for three years as the head of the State Department's International Religious Freedom Office during the Trump administration, praised the release of the State Department's annual report on international religious freedom and expressed some optimism about how the Biden administration will promote the topic.
“When [President Joe Biden] was Senator Biden and I was working with him in the Senate, Joe was good on religious freedom issues and worked and supported them,” Brownback, who left his job as governor of Kansas to become the ambassador at-large, told The Christian Post in a Wednesday interview.
“So, I know personally that’s his viewpoint. My hope is the administration aggressively steps up. I thought the report Secretary [Antony] Blinken put out today was strong. I thought his statements were strong in support of religious freedom. So, I’m hopeful myself. I’m hopeful.”
The State Department’s 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom is the 23rd annual report to Congress released in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Over 2,300 pages long, the report documents the status of religious freedom in every country.
While the Trump administration touted its accomplishments in the international religious freedom space, there was some concern that international religious freedom would receive less priority under the new administration.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the Biden administration has seemingly de-prioritized the promotion of religious liberty. The U.S.-based Christian persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern questioned earlier this year if the administration is committed to putting religious freedom as a central principle in foreign policy priorities.
But Brownback said he is “encouraged” by statements from the Biden administration that claim it is “strongly supportive of religious freedom.”
Brownback pointed out how the Biden administration has continued the sanctions against China that President Donald Trump implemented. On Wednesday, the U.S. sanctioned a Chinese Communist Party official for the mistreatment of religious minorities, and a leading state department official called out China for its “blatant disregard for religious freedom.”
During a Wednesday press conference to announce the report’s release, Blinken and State Department International Religious Freedom Office Director Daniel Nadel highlighted the importance of religious freedom as a universal human right.
They criticized countries such as Iran, Burma, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, countries that are either suffering from religious freedom abuses or where religious freedom is often “out of reach.”
“Religious freedom is a human right,” Blinken said.
“In fact, it goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs as our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and in private.”
The secretary pointed out how religious freedom is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
He assured that the U.S. is committed to defending religious freedom, a right entitled to all people, regardless of what they do believe or do not believe.
“Religious freedom is co-equal with other human rights because human rights are indivisible, Blinken said. “Religious freedom is not more or less important than the freedom to speak, assemble, participate in the political life in one’s country, to live free of torture or slavery or any other human right. Indeed, they’re all interdependent. Religious freedom can’t be fully realized unless other human rights are respected.”
Nadel pointed out how anti-Semitism, a “dangerous ideology” often “linked with violence,” is on the rise worldwide and must be “vigorously opposed.”
Nadel also emphasized the genocide in China of the Uyghur Muslims, as well as China’s oppression of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and other minority faiths.
He said, “we can’t turn a blind eye” to Beijing’s human rights record. He vowed the administration is consulting Congress, allies and other stakeholders as they proceed with the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.
Many have called for the U.S. to boycott the Winter Olympics in Beijing due to China’s human rights abuses and oppression of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.
Nadel, who has worked for three presidential administrations, said the annual report changes very little under new administrations.
“When it comes to the conceptual framework for religious freedom, [Secretary Blinked] has made clear that religious freedom is a nested human right. It’s a human right that exists in co-dependence with other human rights. …,” Nadel explained. “It’s not a departure certainly from any prior concept, but it’s a clarification because Secretary Pompeo did express his view that there was perhaps a hierarchy of rights concept. And that’s a view that this administration does depart from, but that in no way is to indicate that religious freedom is any less important.”
“Religious freedom is in our first amendment,” he continued. “It’s been a part of our country … from the very beginning. It was, in fact, the reason many came to our country because they were fleeing forms of religious persecution or discrimination overseas. That was true in the 18th century. It continues to be true in the 21st century. So as a general matter, religious freedom is a fundamental freedom. It is a co-equal right and it’s one that we will continue to stand up for."
Brownback was confirmed by the Senate in February 2018 to lead the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Office. As a former U.S. senator and sitting governor, he helped elevate the ambassadorship's prestige. A new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom has not yet been nominated.
Brownback hopes his successor for this position is appointed soon to be a spokesperson for religious freedom.
“I do think it would be benefitted to get somebody into the ambassador position on religious freedom,” Brownback shared. “That can be that central point of push.”
He encouraged Biden administration officials to participate in the International Religious Freedom Summit 2021, a grassroots gathering of civil society and religious groups worldwide that will take place in Washington, D.C., from July 13 to July 15. The event will be hosted by a partnership of several religious freedom advocacy organizations, and Brownback will be the summit’s co-chair.
The scheduled summit in the nation’s capital comes as the State Department held annual ministerials to advance religious freedom beginning in 2018 and again in 2019. A ministerial was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emily Wood is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org