Washington Wednesday: Religious liberty and foreign relations

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 24th 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. First up today, Washington Wednesday.

Last week WORLD Senior Editor Mindy Belz joined us to talk about the State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Mindy not only attended and covered that event, she was also a featured speaker. 

And along the way, she got some one-on-one interview time with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. So she’s back today to talk about their conversation. 

Mindy, good morning!

BELZ: Good morning, Nick!

EICHER: Well, hey, before we get into that conversation with Secretary Pompeo, I actually want to hear about your presentation. What was the emphasis of your talk? 

BELZ: Yeah, they had these breakout sessions and I was able to do one with two other really fine journalists about the role of journalism in promoting religious freedom, covering religious oppression. It’s a subject you and I have talked about a lot and I think my thrust was that religion matters. And that matters not only to religious people, it matters to everybody. And so we talked and it was a great discussion with a wide array of people in attendance about how ignoring religious freedom or ignoring religious oppression affects our economy, it affects our politics, it affects our culture, it affects our lives—no matter what we believe. And that’s, I think, a really important emphasis for us to keep having to keep doing the kinds of stories that we want to do. 

And then secondly just the idea which I’ve learned from covering churches in the Middle East that religious diversity is something we ought to embrace. That Muslims living alongside Christians is something that helps the community at large. Muslims need Christians living alongside of them. We don’t need to be afraid of that kind of diversity in our communities, because it strengthens all of us.

EICHER: Well, and to the point of your conversation with Secretary of State Pompeo, journalism that focuses on religious freedom also keeps that in front of policymakers. And let’s talk about that, the conversation that you had with him.

Now, before you do that, let’s set it up with the fact that you talked with him last year, too, but it was part of a kind of roundtable conference call. 

BELZ: Right, last year the State Department was feeling its way through this very important ministerial where you have the top foreign ministers from close to 100 countries, and they’re mixing with survivors of religious persecution. It’s really a remarkable picture. It is people across the religious spectrum. Christians that we all know, like Andrew Brunson, along with Uighurs from China, Muslims from China, Muslims from Bangladesh who’ve been persecuted, Tibetan monks who have survived imprisonment and near death experiences. On and on. And the secretary spoke to several journalists, including religion editors from the Post and The New York Times and WORLD Magazine and Christianity Today last year. And then this year we were able to do a one-on-one conversation. 

EICHER: And your question, Mindy, had to do with declining refugee numbers. 

BELZ: That’s right. And so I came back to that again this year, but it’s important to hear what he said in 2018—one year ago. 

POMPEO: The United States has [been] and remains a country that is enormously receptive to protecting individuals that have are being persecuted around the world and being denied their religious freedom. We have accepted more refugees than any other country for years and years and years. I’m very proud of how this administration has made decisions to protect America, to keep Americans safe, but to also ensure this is a place that acknowledges and protects refugees. 

And he went on to say that the administration’s preference is to help people in their home countries—so they won’t have to leave. So they won’t become refugees. 

EICHER: And you didn’t forget that and he didn’t forget that when you brought that up with him last week. 

BELZ: That’s right. He remembered that I’d asked him that question a year ago. And it was interesting, Nick, because his answer in some ways was the same, but I thought there was a profound difference to it as well. 

POMPEO: Yeah. We have talked about this before, Mindy. The administration has done more for Christian minorities who are in difficult circumstances or threatening circumstances around the world than any previous administration. We have lots of resources, lots of teams, lots of people very, very focused on this. It’s not to the exclusion of other faiths who are being persecuted, but we know the situation in northern Iraq, we know the situation in other parts of the world where Christians are under threat. And our mission set has been to remove that burden. These people would much prefer to stay in their home country, the place that they know, where their families are, where their church is, where their synagogue is. And so our mission set has been to drive better outcomes for them where they are so that fewer individuals will have to come here as refugees.

EICHER: Okay, so listening to that, Mindy, you don’t take that as consistency in administration policy. 

BELZ: I don’t and here’s why: because of what he didn’t say this year. He did allude, again, to the importance of helping people stay in their own countries, but the fact is we have a refugee crisis where 70 million people in the world have been forced out of their homes for one reason or another. And what he said was, “our mission set has been to help them remain where they are.” And, first of all, that’s just impractical, but secondly, the really important thing that was missing from his answer this time was any sort of reference to the immigrant refugee past that is the backbone of the United States of America. And so it seems to me that this administration is sort of divorcing itself from that past and moving a policy forward that I think can only be described as hard line.

EICHER: Okay, so now we’re hearing about the idea, moving forward, of zero refugee admissions. Is there precedent for that in this country? 

BELZ: No, there really is not. Not as a policy. We have done it for short periods of time and most recently I think of the post-9/11, those months immediately following the attacks in 2001, there was a time when the U.S. put sort of a hold on it simply to get our feet on the ground and see who was coming into this country. And all of those things, I think, are things Americans resonate with. We do want to protect our borders and we want to protect our refugee policy. But we want to protect it in order that we can continue to be a haven for survivors of religious and political persecution. You know, the great irony of all of this coming out last week during this Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom is that we had, you know, I was seeing this array of survivors speaking—Andrew Brunson, Nadia Murad, the amazing woman who has become the spokeswoman for the Yazidi people who were wiped out by ISIS. None of these people who aren’t Americans would actually be able to get refugee status in America right now even though they were featured guests of the State Department last week. 

EICHER: Well, your interview was wide-ranging and I want to move on to another topic that you talked to the Secretary of State about, and it was this idea of the carrot for North Korea, but the stick for Iran and why we’ve decided on these different approaches with essentially two almost equally bad-actor states. What struck you about Secretary Pompeo’s response to that? 

BELZ: He tried to make the case that these are countries that are at different points in development of their capability and their risk. I think for most of us who follow those two countries, that’s a little bit of news. Both are close to development of a nuclear weapon. I would say the thing about Iran that has aggravated this administration—and I think rightly so—is their support for terrorists and terrorist groups like Hezbollah. And I think, Nick, what I would say I was hearing in the subtext is that President Trump has chosen to handle these two countries very different ways. And people like Mike Pompeo, like the National Security Advisor John Bolton, who have been following these issues for decades, they’re having a little bit of trouble being on board with that. Being on board with the president’s coming alongside of the North Korean leader. Just before this ministerial started, we found out that President Trump has actually hung a picture in the West Wing, a photograph of his meeting with Kim Jong Un in the Demilitarized Zone and while it was a historic meeting, it’s not one that we’re all comfortable with. And it sends a lot of troubling signals. 

EICHER: Well, clearly Donald Trump is a rather different kind of president. And Mike Pompeo is kind of a different sort of secretary of state. What was your biggest takeaway from your time up there last week? 

BELZ: I agree that it’s a very different atmosphere and in many ways I think Christians ought to welcome the atmosphere that this administration has created around foreign policy. Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Sam Brownback, the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, have really pushed this issue. And I think it’s one of the most important issues—really getting other countries to go on the record about what they’re going to do about promoting religious freedom. That’s huge. And I don’t want us to leave without really acknowledging what an amazing new front they’ve opened up with U.S. foreign policy and addressing it around the issue of religious freedom. It’s huge. I think it’s huge for people on the streets and it’s huge for the halls of political power as well. And Mike Pompeo has a lot of energy. He comes across as somebody who never sleeps. I think we’re going to see him on the political stage for a while to come, and someone who sees—he’s from Kansas. He sees the importance of the whole country of fly over country as well as the right and the left coast—if you will. And I think that those are all welcome things coming from the State Department. 

EICHER: Mindy Belz is senior editor for WORLD Magazine and provides regular international reporting for The World and Everything in It. Mindy, great to talk with you. Thanks so much. 

BELZ: Thank you, Nick.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Thursday, July 18, 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.

Like this story?

To hear a lot more like it, subscribe to The World and Everything in It via iTunes, Overcast, Stitcher, or Pocket Casts.







Pocket Casts

(Requires a fee)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.