Sec. Pompeo Prioritizing International Religious Freedom

June 8, 2018 By Sean Hansen

Secretary Pompeo recently wrapped up his first month at the State Department with the launch of the 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom — part of his first signature policy initiative at the State Department. In releasing the report, Secretary Pompeo emphasized that “Advancing liberty and religious freedom advances America’s interests,” and that “religious freedom deserves to be a front-burner issue.” He also announced that he will host his first Ministerial conference as Secretary of State, focusing on the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act.

National Security Priority

Both the report and Secretary Pompeo’s statement dovetail with the Administration’s National Security Strategy, which made protecting “religious freedom and religious minorities” around the world a priority. Building on the release of the National Security Strategy, USAID Administrator Mark Green commented that “Religious freedom is also a key component of building peace and stability around the world. Before we can help support citizens and communities, we need strong commitments from host country governments to fight religious persecution and advance religious tolerance and freedom of religion or belief.”

The State Department report was spearheaded by the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, who noted that “the state of religious freedom has improved over the past 20 years, but the situation remains dire for way too many people around the world.” Recently returning from a trip to Bangladesh, Ambassador Brownback called the crisis there “the worst I’ve seen,” with 700,000 Rohingya refugees forced to live in crowded camps after fleeing ethnic and religious cleansing in Myanmar.

This year’s report highlights the troubling state of international religious freedom in 2017, including attacks on Christian and religious minorities in Iraq in areas under the control of ISIS, ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya population in Myanmar, and the brutal treatment of religious minorities in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. American efforts to protect religious freedom through diplomacy and development are an important tool in our efforts to prevent atrocities and promote freedom.

Religious Minorities in Northern Iraq

Vice President Pence has similarly focused his attention on protecting religious minorities in northern Iraq against violence by ISIS militants. Last year, he raised concerns that Christian and Yazidi minorities in northern Iraq were not sufficiently protected by programs funded at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), saying “While faith-based groups with proven track records and deep roots in these communities are more than willing to assist, the United Nations too often denies their funding requests.”

This led to a renegotiation of the U.S. commitment by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, whereby $55 million of an initial $75 million in funding will be programmed to support minority religious groups in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains. A second tranche of U.S. funding for stabilization efforts in northern Iraq will be dependent upon UNDP putting in place additional accountability and transparency measures, as directed by USAID.

The shift in policy initially raised concerns from some government officials and aid workers, who argued that the policy could further single out already at-risk minority communities and that the U.S. should focus its aid on rebuilding ISIS-ravaged Mosul. But more recently, the White House has expressed satisfaction with UNDP,  saying “We are very confident that not only will U.S. funds go more directly toward assisting persecuted religious minorities — the U.N. is also stepping up to the plate to further fund effective programs that directly go to communities — particularly in Iraq.”

Much Work Remains

This week the White House announced that it has directed the U.S. government to “distribute assistance through USAID in order to provide faster and more direct aid to Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq” and Administrator Green to travel to Iraq in the coming weeks to assess the situation on the ground. This comes after USAID had allocated an additional $35 million in collaborative funding with NGOs, charities, and academics to create innovative ways to facilitate the return of Christians and other minority groups in the Nineveh Plains in Iraq and begin the process of rebuilding.

With the State Department’s upcoming Ministerial conference in July, Secretary Pompeo has stated that “The United States will not stand by as spectators. We will get in the ring and stand in solidarity with every individual who seeks to enjoy their most fundamental of human rights.” The question is, what will this commitment ultimately look like?