It was already a deeply moving tour through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum when it became personal for one visitor. Senior State Department officials were winding their way through the sobering exhibits accompanied by recent survivors of religious persecution at an event kicking off the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a Washington gathering of high-level delegations from 106 countries around the globe.
When the group reached the display of a train car Nazis used to deport Jews to concentration camps eight decades ago, Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya Muslim and Burmese human rights activist, stopped short.
“This reminds me of Burma today,” she told her American guide, Knox Thames, who was an adviser for religious minorities at the State Department. Wai Wai Nu was imprisoned for seven years because of her father’s political activism, an act of repression years before the brutal crackdown by Burma’s army against her fellow Rohingya, which began in 2017 and has left an estimated 24,000 dead. Nearly 1 million Rohingya have since fled into Bangladesh while some 600,000 who remain in Burma have been transported to camps and villages, cut off from access to adequate food, water, health care and education.
“It was just chilling to tour this museum, a memorial to what we thought and hoped was about atrocities that would never happen again, but to know it’s all happening again,” Thames told RealClearPolitics.
Wai Wai Nu was in Washington that day for the largest international religious freedom gathering ever held. Hosted by the State Department, the summit also coincided with a Pew Research Center study that found religious persecution and restrictions on the rise worldwide. It was the second ministerial of its kind in as many years and an outward sign of the high priority President Donald Trump placed on fighting religious persecution overseas, as was his decision to tap Sam Brownback, a former Kansas senator and governor, as his ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Now a new administration is taking shape, and religious-freedom advocates are nervously searching for signs that Joe Biden’s administration will maintain the delicate institutional framework built during Brownback’s tenure. Without a firm commitment from the president-elect, they fear it could all evaporate.
What’s at stake: Trump’s Institutional Strides
It was Thames, a former top State Department adviser on religious freedom issues during the Obama and Trump administrations, who came up with the idea to organize an international summit on religious freedom in Washington. Brownback wholeheartedly embraced the suggestion and went to work obtaining the resources to make it happen.
When Mike Pompeo, Brownback’s fellow Kansan, became secretary of state in 2018, Brownback found an eager and willing partner. The two also worked to create the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a new global organization of senior government officials from 31 countries.
Throughout his Cabinet secretary tenure, Pompeo regularly named and shamed bad actors based on the State Department’s annual religious freedom report, which ranked countries in different tiers depending on how well they do or do not protect religious freedom. Pompeo has condemned China’s persecution and forced labor of the largely Muslim Uighur population more than two dozen times in the last year, and over the summer the U.S. sanctioned multiple Chinese officials over the Uighurs’ mistreatment, though critics point out that he has been far less vocal about abuses in Saudi Arabia and North Korea.
In early June, Trump demonstrated another level of commitment – the president issued an executive order declaring religious freedom a “moral and national security imperative.” The policy change required the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to develop a plan to prioritize international religious freedom in foreign policy and assistance decisions. It also provided $50 million to carry out the mission, a relatively small but unprecedented sum that encouraged activists and advocacy groups.
Brownback ‘Optimistic’ Biden Will Continue Bipartisan Work
At a mid-November press conference, Brownback was asked whether he was concerned that the incoming administration could diminish or dismantle the global movement he helped build over the last three years. He responded that he’s “optimistic” about Biden’s willingness to continue the work he began because religious freedom is a core American principle that has bipartisan buy-in from top congressional leaders and outside advocates.
The second ministerial underscored this. It featured a bipartisan discussion between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former GOP Rep. Frank Wolf, two longtime champions of religious freedom abroad. Brownback also stressed that he worked to build lasting overseas partnerships that will continue regardless of who is president of the United States, noting that Poland took the reins from the U.S. and held the third international ministerial this year, albeit virtually because of COVID concerns. Next year, Brazil plans to host the summit.
“You’re seeing other countries pick up the cause that the United States has launched,” Brownback said. “I think without the U.S. leaning in and pushing it, this would not have gotten launched. But now that it’s launched and you have a regular ministerial, and you have an alliance that’s stood up on the topic, and you have 30 religious freedom roundtables – grassroots activists around the world – this movement’s launched, and it’s not going to stop with the change of an administration.”
“I hope that the Biden administration would be strongly supportive of this as well,” Brownback added. “Joe Biden was when he was a senator. I would think he would continue to do it as president, if that’s the final court ruling [on the election results].”
A spokesman for the Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment about the president-elect’s commitment to religious freedom and continuing the international summits and partnerships the Trump administration created.
Those who share Brownback’s optimism that Biden will champion the cause point to the president-elect’s deep Catholic faith, which he characterized frequently during the 2020 campaign as a guiding light through his many personal challenges. Biden’s campaign actively courted religious voters, highlighting different religious services and prayers throughout the Democratic convention as a way to chip away at Trump’s strong support from evangelical Protestants and other, more traditional, members of the faith community. His campaign also produced a plan to safeguard domestic faith-based communities, including increased security grants to places of worship and strengthening the prosecutions of hate crimes.
“President-elect Biden is himself a person of very sincere and deep faith, so I don’t think he is going to need anybody to explain to him that this is a central and fundamental human right,” Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, said in an interview. “You can put me in the camp of those who are optimistic that the Biden administration will have a strong international religious freedom policy. I actually think it’s going to be quite a robust one.”
The Obama administration, she added, began elevating the issue by appointing David Saperstein to the position. The first Jew in that role, Rabbi Saperstein is widely respected among Republicans and Democrats alike.
Saperstein’s name has surfaced as a possible replacement for Brownback. Other names that have been mentioned include Gayle Manchin, a member of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and wife of Sen. Joe Manchin; Zeenat Rahman, a director of the Inclusive America Project at the Aspen Institute and a former State Department political appointee during the Obama administration; and Democratic Reps. Anna Eshoo of California and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, two leading House voices on the issue, both of whom would have to resign from Congress to take the post.
One of the most intriguing possibilities is Katrina Swett herself. She has a history with Biden, deep experience in the field, and a noble pedigree on the issue of religious freedom. A former chairwoman of the USCIRF, an independent bipartisan commission created by Congress, she is the daughter of the late Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, who represented his California district from 1981 until his death in 2008. Rep. Lantos chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and previously created the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. He was close friends and colleagues with Joe Biden, who received the Lantos Foundation’s first legacy award in 2018.
Nancy Pelosi, then House minority leader, introduced Biden at the ceremony. Upon receiving the award, he told the crowd: “We must be careful to avoid the temptation to rationalize … or excuse away, or turn a blind eye to any act that violates the humanity of any man, woman, or child on this earth. Remember Tom. Remember his example.”
Global Religious Freedom Network Takes On a Life of Its Own
Greg Mitchell has served as a co-chair of Washington’s influential International Religious Freedom Roundtable, along with Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement, for nearly a decade. The group, an open forum for promoting religious freedom initiatives worldwide, grew from 15 participants to some 75 at the beginning of the Trump administration. After Brownback expressed an interest in attending the group’s meetings when he became ambassador-at-large in early 2018, the size of the group mushroomed to nearly 150 participants and began meeting every Tuesday in committee rooms on Capitol Hill. Roundtable participants include representatives of nearly every major faith and belief community, from mainline Protestant Methodists and Catholics to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, along with atheists and humanists, Mitchell says.
Since going virtual during the COVID pandemic, the weekly confab has attracted some 900 participants from more than 60 countries who have attended at least one meeting over the past few months. With Brownback’s support, Mitchell is helping create similar religious freedom roundtables in countries around the world. In contrast to Trump’s America First foreign policy, on this topic Trump appointees have not only embraced international bodies, they have worked to create a new one in the form of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.
Over the last decade, Mitchell says the roundtable has worked with the Obama administration during Hillary Clinton’s and John Kerry’s tenures as secretary of state, and more recently with Pompeo and Brownback.
“So we’ll invite the Biden administration to just pick up and keep going with us,” Mitchell told RCP. “Because of the increasingly global nature of this entire network … I’m confident they will continue to embrace these roundtables, participate in the alliance. It’s not just U.S. government-led or driven; you have other countries that have opted in.”
Other outside groups are equally upbeat about the Biden transition.
“Over the past four years, Democrats and Republicans have regularly joined forces to advance religious freedom in numerous countries where individuals are killed, injured, imprisoned, held in detention camps, or stripped of their fundamental rights simply because of their religion or beliefs,” said Kelsey Zorzi, director of advocacy for global religious freedom with ADF International, a faith-based nonprofit that focuses on legal advocacy. “These joint efforts have demonstrated that the promotion of international religious freedom is one foreign policy issue that transcends party lines, and we hope and expect that will continue over the next four years.”
Melissa Rogers, a visiting professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity who served as the executive director of Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, is calling on the Biden administration to continue the ministerials “with the secretary of state’s ongoing involvement.” Rogers, along with Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, last month penned a report for the Brookings Institute praising several Trump administration accomplishments on religious freedom but also calling for some shifts in focus that alarmed some activists.
Their report, titled “A Time to Heal, a Time to Build,” argued that “the metrics for evaluation should focus on whether vulnerable people’s lives are being improved, not on whether the amount of government funding that flows to faith-based organizations increases.” While the point sounds enlightened, some feared that it was language designed to give cover to those who would roll back years-long efforts by Vice President Mike Pence and political appointees to cut through bureaucratic roadblocks at the State Department and USAID. Those efforts allowed the U.S. government to provide grants and funds directly to Catholic groups and other religious organizations that were early and consistent leaders in rebuilding Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq ravaged by ISIS.
Will Climate Change Supplant Religious Freedom?
While most activists RCP interviewed praised several aspects of the report, many longtime international religious freedom proponents said they remain pessimistic about the prospects for advancing the cause during a Biden administration. They worry that widespread religious persecution in places like Iraq, Burma, Nigeria and China will get shunted aside in favor of more predictable secular Democratic Party priorities, especially climate change. Biden has already tapped Kerry as his climate change czar and pledged to rejoin the Paris climate accord after the Trump administration withdrew from it.
“I am deeply concerned that religious freedom is going to be pushed aside by those on the left who believe that religion is the problem,” said Nina Shea, a former USCIRF commissioner who serves as the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, a conservative foreign-policy think tank. “That is a phenomenon we are already seeing, especially in Europe and in the [United Nations], promoted by government experts, that religion is a source of persecution.”
While Shea gives high marks to Rabbi Saperstein’s tenure during the Obama administration, she noted that President Obama left the ambassador-at-large position open without naming a replacement for several long stretches of time, and she hopes Biden will not do likewise.
She also worries that Biden’s top State Department appointees could shift to a narrative that access to abortion is a basic human right and could blame religions that want to limit abortion as responsible for violating that new right.
“I’m concerned that climate change will dominate the diplomatic narrative; religious freedom, a signature issue of the Trump administration, will be just dropped,” she said. “And I’m concerned that religious believers will be blamed for human rights violations, and that they will be demonized.”
Shea and others who share her views say there is just cause for their concerns. Last fall a bipartisan group of senators tried to pass changes to USCIRF’s mandate that would widen its responsibility to monitor and report on the “abuse of religion to justify human rights violations.” Commissioner Kristina Arriaga resigned in protest over the direction of the negotiations, and USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins said the shift would require the watchdog organization to “begin policing religion in many ways.”
“That would dilute our effectiveness and focus,” Perkins argued. The senators eventually backed away from those changes.
Iran Policy Could Also Undercut Rebuilding After ISIS Genocide
Some concerns about Biden’s approach to religious freedom stem from basic foreign-policy differences in Iran and other hot spots. With Pompeo leading the charge, the Trump administration pulled out of the nuclear deal that Obama, and officials from five other countries, negotiated with Tehran. The deal delivered $1.7 billion in cash to the regime while also easing economic sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to limit its nuclear program through 2025.
Some advocates of persecuted Christians and Yazidis, both religious minority groups that were victims of ISIS genocide, believe that the infusion of funds empowered Iranian militias to swoop in and colonize areas in northern Iraq. Pence made it his personal mission to bolster the rebuilding of these beleaguered Christian and Yazidi communities, but the proliferation of Iranian militia in the area has recently undercut some of the progress.
In an op-ed written for CNN in September, Biden said he plans to rejoin the Iranian nuclear deal “if Iran returns to strict compliance.” The pledge has Shea and other advocates for Iraqi Christians and Yazidis bracing for more Iranian militia security threats in the region.
At the same time, many observers are encouraged by Biden’s stated intention to overturn Trump’s ban on allowing refugees to come to the United States from Arab countries. Stephen Rasche, the vice chancellor of the Catholic University in Erbil and the executive director of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, is among them.
“Thousands of Christian refugee families from Iraq and Syria have remained trapped in Turkey and Jordan, many of their situations dating back to the Obama administration,” Rasche told RCP. “They continue to exist almost completely off the radar screen of the U.S. and the U.N. in a precarious state without any assistance or path to permanent resettlement abroad. Hopefully in a pro-immigration administration their plight can finally get a fair hearing and equal priority in attention.”
It remains to be seen if Biden will follow through, Rasche said.
“Under the new administration, will pressure on Iran be lessened in a way that allows them to resume or increase their destabilizing behavior in Iraq, much of which has greatly harmed and prevented the ability of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis to return and stabilize their ancestral towns in the north?” he asks. “This issue is being watched very closely and with great concern by the religious minorities in Iraq.”
Blinken Is the Linchpin
Biden’s selection of Antony Blinken, a chief architect of the Iran deal, as secretary of state could spell new trouble for persecuted religious minorities in Iraq, some critics fear. Blinken, a big defender of global alliances who has led the attack on Trump’s “America First” foreign policy over the last several years, served as both deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Blinken attempted to allay those concerns last month when he delivered some remarks following Biden’s nomination of him. Blinken recalled a gripping story about his late stepfather spending four years in concentration camps in Poland during the Holocaust until he managed to escape into the Bavarian Forest and was rescued by an African American GI.
“He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: God bless America. The GI lifted him into the tank, into America, into freedom. That’s who we are,” Blinken said.
Thames, the diplomat who led the tour of the Holocaust museum last year, worked with Blinken during the Obama administration when he keynoted a State Department event in July 2016 about the ISIS persecution of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. He also supported and participated in a special side event at the U.N. General Assembly that year focused on the need to protect the cultural heritage of religious minorities victimized by ISIS.
“[Blinken] attended and encouraged [then-]Vice President Joe Biden to speak,” Thames said. “He was a proponent of using the term genocide in the debate about what ISIS had done against Christians and others. So when I heard his name, I thought, that’s good. We’ll have a friend on human rights issues.”
“How outspoken will he be on specific countries? That’s hard to guess. Secretary Pompeo has been very strong on China and Iran but hasn’t said much of anything on religious persecution in North Korea and Saudi Arabia. So there’s always going to be a tension in diplomacy between security and human rights – it’s a hard business. But certainly from what I’ve experienced when Blinken was deputy secretary, he will be personally interested in issues of religious freedom and fighting religious persecution.”