The Government's First Priority Post-Shutdown Must Be Advancing Religious Freedom


As the 2019 partial government shutdown ends, it’s a good time to reflect on government’s first priorities, what the federal government did right in 2018, and what it should do in 2019, now that it is reopened.

When thinking about Washington’s biggest priorities in 2018, several come to mind: Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle, Robert Mueller’s investigation, Andrew Brunson’s return to the United States. If we lost you with the last one, you’re not alone. Pastor Andrew Brunson may not be a household name, but for Americans concerned about rights of conscience and religious freedom, his harrowing story highlights one of the most important but underreported issues in 2018: the advance of international religious freedom.

After living in and serving the people of Turkey as a missionary for over 20 years, Pastor Brunson was arrested on trumped-up charges of aiding a coup attempt and held hostage for two years. His life-threatening nightmare ended in October when the Trump administration intervened and he was released and allowed to return to the United States. What would have happened under a different administration less committed to international religious freedom? Thankfully, we don’t have to speculate.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media’s coverage of the administration, 2018 was a groundbreaking year for the cause of religious freedom, as senior administration officials made the plight of the religiously oppressed abroad a central plank of the administration’s foreign policy.

The Trump administration’s focus on international religious freedom was direly needed from the administration’s first days. Recall the attacks on religious minorities during President Obama’s tenure: the 2014 ISIS genocide of the ancient Yazidi religious minority in Iraq, when 5,000 Yazidi men were slaughtered and 7,000 Yazidi women were sold to ISIS fighters as sex slaves; the vivid images of the 2015 slaughter of 30 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIS fighters on a Libyan beach; the 2017 double bombing of Egyptian Coptic churches on Palm Sunday that left over 40 dead.

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The Trump administration’s focus on religious freedom internationally continues a longstanding bipartisan commitment to international religious freedom. President Clinton is remembered for many things — 2018 marked the 20-year anniversary of the Lewinsky saga — but one of his lesser known but enduring achievements was signing the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, a bipartisan effort initiated by Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia that affirmed the importance of promoting IRF as a key aspect of American foreign policy.

The act created the office of International Religious Freedom and the position of Ambassador-at-large for Religious Freedom now held by former senator and governor Sam Brownback. Further, it requires the State Department to prepare and submit to Congress the International Religious Freedom Report. Twenty years on, the good news is the federal government is meeting its obligations.

This past July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Sam Brownback hosted the first ever, and first annual, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. Along with representatives of more than 80 nations, survivors of religious persecution were present and bore witness to the plight of the religiously oppressed from many faiths and nations.

During the Ministerial, Vice President Mike Pence spoke powerfully of the United States’ commitment to religious freedom. “The right to believe or not believe is the most fundamental of freedoms,” he said. “When religious liberty is denied or destroyed, we know that other freedoms — freedom of speech, of press, assembly, and even democratic institutions themselves — are imperiled.”

“That’s why the United States of America stands for religious freedom yesterday, today, and always.  We do this because it is right. But we also do this because religious freedom is in the interest of the peace and security of the world.”

Building on the momentum from the inaugural Ministerial, in November, the Religious Freedom Institute and Baylor University in Washington co-hosted a conference to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act. Over 250 scholars and religious freedom advocates met to discuss how to advance religious freedom and heard first-hand stories of persecution from Yazidis from Iraq, Rohingya from Burma, and Christians and Uyghur Muslims from China and discussed the essential next steps to ensure religious freedom for all.

Ambassador Brownback noted that preserving religious freedom positively impacts countries, cultures and communities by promoting cultural stability, economic growth, security and peace. “If you get this one right, religious freedom, a lot of other freedoms bloom,” Ambassador Brownback said. “If you get this one wrong, a lot of other freedoms contract. This is a basic human right; it is built into our DNA as a country.”

As the shutdown ends and the debate rages over the proper fix for our porous southern border, it is appropriate to reflect on why so many seek to come here — our freedoms and chief among them is religious freedom.  While 2018 was a good year for the cause of international religious freedom in Washington, D.C., the cry of millions is that 2018 would not be the end of this movement, but only the beginning. Their lives may depend on it.

Jacqueline Halbig von Schleppenbach served in senior executive positions in the Bush administration and the Office of the Governor of Virginia. She is the founder and principal consultant for Sovereign Global Solutions, LLC.

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Garrett M. Fahy is a business litigation and election law lawyer and political commentator in Southern California.

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