Washington Wednesday: Religious freedom ministerial

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 17th of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s Washington Wednesday: Today, the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. 

Now, that may sound like an odd name, but this is a significant meeting. Largely because it’s not just religious freedom activists. The summit also includes diplomats—actual decision-makers from around the world. 

Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback is leading the effort. He’s a former member of Congress and governor of Kansas. And he’s billed this event as the biggest religious freedom gathering in the world—more than 1,000 leaders in attendance.

The underlying purpose here? To promote respect for and preservation of religious freedom.

REICHARD: WORLD Senior Editor Mindy Belz is in Washington this week for the ministerial and she’s on the line to talk about it. Now, you’re going to hear a lot of commotion in the background, because she’s right in the middle of things. So that’s what you’re hearing.

Mindy, describe what you’re seeing so far.

BELZ: Well, it’s a lavish scene, I will say. I’m here in kind of the belly of the State Department. The main room is packed, was absolutely packed on the opening day with government leaders, with church leaders. It was a great array of religious headwear and clothing of all kinds and people of all colors. More than 100 nations represented. 

And I think a number of people who would be recognizable to our listeners and to WORLD Magazine readers, religious figures who we have covered over the years. 

It’s just quite a parade and so simply the fact that all these people are here from the Middle East, from Africa, from Asia, Uighurs from China, persecuted Christians from Iraq and Syria is striking. Just simply that it’s happening at all. 

REICHARD: What do you think is notable about this particular gathering?  

BELZ: Well, this is the second time the Trump administration has done this. It obviously is something they consider a priority. I’ve already heard Secretary Mike Pompeo speak two times, and I’m scheduled to talk with him actually this week. And Ambassador Sam Brownback—I heard him yesterday say he was so excited about this event, he felt like a kid on Christmas morning. And then he stopped and he apologized and he said, “I realize not all my friends in this room are Christians who appreciate that, but I’m very excited.” 

So, that kind of enthusiasm is carrying this administration forward on this issue and that’s sort of a remarkable thing. I think, as we head into an election season, it’s going to be very interesting how this administration’s focus on religious freedom, focus on religious ideas and religious movements, how that’s going to play out for the American people.

But right now, one of the new things that we are seeing here is that other countries are sending these high level delegations, they are establishing working groups, roundtables, things that would be similar to, say, our U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. They obviously are taking this to heart and there are new levels of coalition building that are happening as a result. 

REICHARD: Naysayers argue that last year’s summit, the first one, didn’t accomplish much. Comment? 

BELZ: I think it’s always hard to see action come out of a gathering that is dominated by words. And, you know, what this last year’s ministerial came out with was something called the Potomac Declaration, and you kinda have to be a constitutional lawyer to appreciate the nuances and the values of it. 

What it does is really put the countries who are part of this effort on record as saying that they support religious freedom for all groups. And when you translate that into a country like Saudi Arabia or into a country like Iran or into a country like China, it’s significant. We don’t have the level of buy-in from those countries that we’d like. And so that’s why you don’t see what I would call action on these issues. 

But this is—I think government officials would argue this is a start. Ambassador Brownback talked about how he likes to build odd coalitions. And so for instance, Vice President Mike Pence and the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi appearing together on the stage to talk about religious freedom and specifically to talk about U.S.-China policy, and so just the idea of those things being able to happen is what this is about. 

I have a lot of questions about the action myself. I see a lot of ways in which the U.S. rhetoric is not actually translating into movement on the ground, let’s say, in Iraq, where Christian communities desperately need to rebuild. Or in Syria, where Christian communities are being abandoned or driven out within miles of U.S. forces. And so there is a lot that I think we can look to and ask what action is going to result from all of this talk. 

REICHARD: Others are saying this is tied to the Trump administration and the culture wars, making the event a non-starter for many. What do you think?

BELZ: It’s a really interesting question because clearly the mainstream media is here only in the most cursory way. And you don’t have the buy-in across the political spectrum in the United States. 

However, it’s very interesting to see how other countries take it seriously. And I think that what it tells us is that the United States as a culture, as a country, if we think of it as a post-Christian culture, it’s not quite on the same page as much of the rest of the world. The world is a religious place. And much of the rest of the world finds the ideas of taking religion seriously a lot more palatable than many Americans do. 

So I think it’s a very interesting commentary that you see a lot of other countries here much more active in this kind of forum than even we would see the United States being active. 

REICHARD: Presentations at the summit included testimonies by victims of religious persecution. Nadia Murad is one. She’s a Yazidi  survivor from Iraq. American pastor Andrew Brunson who was held for two years in Turkey another. What stood out to you about this aspect? 

BELZ: One of the things that, to me, is most striking about this event that opens at the Holocaust Museum was a very small, very somber ceremony—I would call it—where the victims of violence—and keep in mind that this year we have had major attacks affecting Christians, Muslims, and Jews. You think about the attack on the mosque in New Zealand, the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, and the attack on the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

Survivors of each of those attacks, plus many more—including Nadia Murad, as you mentioned—were there at the Holocaust Hall of Rememberance lighting candles, remembering the people who have died. 

One of the leaders from Sri Lanka, she described this Sunday School of children on Easter morning being asked the question, “Would you be willing to die for Christ?” and raising their hands to say yes, they would, just moments before the bomb went off and many, many of those children were killed. 

It is very striking to see these victims stand before this very esteemed gathering of people and tell stories of some of the rawest tragedies that are happening in the world, to recognize that they are happening on a mass level. 

And I think that’s one of the things that is easy to overlook on this is that all of these people have come together because so many people have died from religiously motivated violence. And in many cases, something we look at seriously is the rise of Islamic jihadism and continue to see proliferate. 

And so how do each of these groups, these major religions deal with the fanatics and the violence that’s in their midst? And I just—it’s very striking to see the ceremony commemorating those who died and to realize just how many have died.

REICHARD: Mindy Belz is WORLD Magazine’s senior editor. Mindy, thanks for being our eyes and ears today.

BELZ: Thank you, Mary.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at the U.S. State Department in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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