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Leaders in religious freedom hotspots welcome Trump executive order

Archbishop Bashar Warda
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE | AFP
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More work needs to be done, but directive gives cause a major boost, observers say.

President Trump’s issuance of an executive order on international religious freedom June 2 was overshadowed by controversy, but now voices of those who could be affected by the directive are emerging.

Edward Pentin, the National Catholic Register’s Rome correspondent, surveyed a number of bishops in areas of the world where Christians have been living with religious persecution for quite a while. These religious leaders expressed gratitude for Trump’s action, but also pointed out areas where more needs to be done.

The executive order at first received little notice, almost swallowed up by events surrounding its signing. After the May 25 death of a Minneapolis black man in police custody and subsequent protests, Trump on June 1 paid an impromptu visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House, which had sustained fire damage during a riot. Many critics dismissed the visit as a photo op, particularly as Trump held up a Bible for the cameras.

So when he and First Lady Melania Trump went to the St. John Paul II National Shrine near the campus of Catholic University on June 2, it was widely dismissed as a publicity stunt, particularly as the president’s support among Catholics, crucial for his reelection in November, has been eroding.

But the visit, it turned out, had been planned for some time — before the George Floyd killing — and the date was significant. It was the anniversary of the historic 1979 visit of John Paul II to communist Poland. The pope had spoken much during that visit about religious freedom, so it seemed apropos to sign the executive order in conjunction with the anniversary. The signing took place back at the White House later that day.

In spite of the controversy in the U.S., the executive order was widely welcomed by religious leaders abroad.

“We welcome the recent Executive Order on Advancing Religious Freedom,” said Chaldean Archbishop Bashir Warda of Erbil, Iraq, according to the Register. “Having directly experienced persecution, crimes against humanity and genocide because of our commitment to our faith, we are deeply grateful for the efforts of the administration to maintain an international focus on this issue.”

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan told Pentin he welcomed the “courage” Trump showed in signing the order and hoped “there will be an effective follow-up” in the form of defending and preserving civil rights, creating jobs, promoting development and helping foster a true religious dialogue that they “dream of.”

But Christians need “effective solidarity” from the U.S. which needs to be “shown in deeds, not only words,” Younan said.

One way to do that would be by fulfilling American promises of assistance, such as the one Vice President Mike Pence made in October 2017 to make sure aid went directly to Christians and other persecuted religious minorities, rather than through the United Nations.

In Africa, meanwhile, Islamist groups continue to pose a threat to Christians and other Muslims. Just this week, a suspected militant group — either Boko Haram or an offshoot — rampaged through a village in northeast Nigeria, killing nearly 70 civilians. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto told the Register that Trump’s executive order put the persecution of Christians and other religions “on the front burner.” While he said it’s too early to know what effect the executive order will have on the ground, Kukah is hopeful it will hold world leaders accountable for “unacceptable violence” on the basis of religion.

Religious freedom observers also welcomed Trump’s executive order. Veteran human rights activist Nina Shea wrote in the Wall Street Journal Thursday that  the Trump administration has “elevated the cause of international religious freedom since the president came into office.”

“The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy cited violent attacks on religious minorities. In a notable first, the document promised to “place a priority on protecting” such groups,” she explained. “The recent executive order, which applies beyond the Middle East and religious minorities, ensures the NSS pledge will become operational. For example, Nigeria is on the [International Religious Freedom Act] ‘special watch list’ and will automatically be given priority through a selection of diplomatic tools — from assistance for rights defenders to help improving security for targeted houses of worship and villages. China, a ‘country of particular concern’ because it suppresses all religions, will receive similar treatment.

“The secretary of state, U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. embassies around the world must produce specific plans to advance religious freedom,” Shea continued. “They also will carry out educational training in international religious freedom for the Foreign Service and other federal employees. Another important provision appears to take aim at America’s previously unconscionable negligence in Iraq by mandating “foreign assistance programs shall ensure that faith-based and religious entities, including eligible entities in foreign countries, are not discriminated against.”

Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999-2012, continued:

The order puts teeth in IRFA’s listing of severe persecutors by directing the secretaries of State and Treasury to prioritize economic sanctions and visa denials to pressure offending individuals in those countries. It allocates $50 million for new programs to protect religious communities and their culture.

Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, pointed out in an article in America magazine, “The second sentence of the [executive] order contains words that … advocates have been waiting for years to hear a president utter: ‘Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom.'”

Said Philpott, “The order helps to lift the U.S. government’s advocacy of religious freedom abroad into high-level foreign policy.”

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