By Daniel Merrill
Standing resolute on Secretary Mike Pompeo’s desk is a small note card with a verse from the Bible’s Psalm 126: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” This note was discreetly passed to Pompeo by Pastor Andrew Brunson when the pastor touched down in the United States after being freed by the Turkish government last October.
“I keep it framed in my office today. I do so because it reminds me of the power of faith in even the most trying times,” said Pompeo. “There are so many around the world who are longing for the right to worship freely. Without fear. Without persecution. Their faith gets them through these trying times. You all came here because you understand that it is our responsibility to help them. We’re all in this fight together.”
Pompeo’s words were a call to action for attendees at the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a gathering of 105 government delegations and more than 1,000 civil society attendees hosted at the Harry S. Truman building, July 16-18. Pastor Brunson’s story is particularly meaningful to Pompeo because at last year’s ministerial he called on the Turkish government to free the pastor, making Brunson’s attendance at this year’s event a triumph. Pompeo, along with Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and many others, spoke during the event and highlighted stories of survivors of religious persecution and those who continue to face persecution today.
This year’s ministerial marked a historic occasion. It was the largest human rights event ever convened at the Department of State and is also among the largest officially sponsored gatherings on religious freedom ever held in the world. As declared by both President Donald Trump and Pompeo, the United States has made international religious freedom a foreign policy priority, and the ministerial highlighted this national commitment.
The first two days of the ministerial focused on engaging civil society representatives and religious leaders in conversation that focused on addressing abuse and combining forces to more effectively promote universal respect for religious freedom. The Department hosted survivors of religious persecution from around the world representing Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Yazidi, Hindu, Falun Gong, secular humanists and other communities.
Throughout the event, survivors shared their personal experiences of persecution. This gave context to the important work of the Department and encouraged the Department’s civil society and governmental partners to address the challenges that these survivors faced. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback highlighted the urgent need for more global action, while USAID Administrator Mark Green pledged to incorporate religious freedom issues into strategies moving forward. Overall, the ministerial offered a platform for the Department to single out particularly concerning issues, for example, Pelosi and former Congressman Frank Wolf spoke about China’s violations of religious freedom.
As the Ministerial continued, Trump hosted more than two dozen survivors of religious persecution in the Oval Office, July 17, where he listened to their personal stories and requests. During a reception later that evening, Pompeo presented the inaugural International Religious Freedom Awards to six civil society actors who demonstrated exceptional commitment to advancing freedom of religion or belief.
Pompeo praised them saying, “If the future of religious freedom rests on solid ground, it’s because of people who are sharing the stage with me tonight.”
The awardees included Ivanir dos Santos, an activist for indigenous beliefs from Brazil; Salpy Eskidjian Weiderud, the facilitator of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process; William and Pascale Warda of Iraq, co-founders of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization; and Mohamed Yosaif Abdalrahan, a Sudanese human rights lawyer known for defending religious minorities. Imam Abubakar Abdullahi of Nigeria, though unable to attend in person, was also honored for the tremendous courage he displayed in sheltering 262 Christians in his mosque as they fled an attack by violent extremists, even offering to trade his own life for theirs.
During the final day of the ministerial, 105 foreign government and international organization delegations participated in a traditional plenary session, offering their own statements on the importance of promoting and defending religious freedom. Many pledged specific action to promote religious freedom, including hosting regional follow-on conferences and creating initiatives, funds and envoy positions focused on religious freedom. The vice president highlighted cases of individuals who remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs in countries including Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. He declared that the American people “will always stand with people across the world who take a stand for their faith.”
Near the ministerial’s conclusion, Pompeo announced his intention to launch an International Religious Freedom Alliance among like-minded governments and civil society organizations.
Brownback closed the ministerial with a vision for the future, “Let this be the beginning of a global grassroots movement for religious freedom. … Let this week be the moment the history books point out as the time the world determined that this human right will not be trampled on anymore. Let the movement begin!”
Daniel Merrill is a report editor in the Office of International Religious Freedom.