- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Religious liberty advocates from around the world converged on Washington on Tuesday to shine a light on the plight of faith groups that are persecuted by their governments.

The opening day of the State Department’s three-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom was marked by testimonials from victims of religious persecution, who shared stories of false imprisonment, re-education camps, the confiscation of religious texts and the demolition of houses of worship.

Sam Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said in opening remarks that the right to religious freedom is under attack.

“The lack of religious freedom anywhere is a threat to peace, prosperity and stability everywhere,” Mr. Brownback said. “The right to freedom of religion, and the ability to live according to the dictates of your own soul, is under attack in the world. This must change.”

The ministerial, which runs through Thursday, was launched with the goal of highlighting “concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change.”

Other speakers included Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and former Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican. Television producer Mark Burnett and actress Roma Downey, who collaborated on the popular NBC miniseries “A.D. The Bible Continues,” were interviewed by Voice of America news host Greta Van Susteren.

Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to address the summit on Thursday.

Representatives from more than 80 nations were expected to attend the summit, representing an array of faith groups, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Yazidis.

Jamie Powell told the gathering about her husband, the Rev. John Cao, who has been detained in China for 17 months as he serves a seven-year prison sentence.

“It is clear to us now that John was set up for this arrest because of his faith-driven work and accused of a fabricated crime: facilitating organized border crossing, a charge that is usually given to human traffickers,” Ms. Powell said. “Since his detainment, my husband has suffered a rapid decline in his health. He has lost 50 pounds. He’s not been able to communicate with me and my children.”

Tahir Hamut, a Uighur Muslim filmmaker from China who now resides in the U.S., said the Chinese government has “turned the Uighur region into a police state, an open prison.”

“The Chinese government is using advanced surveillance technologies, such as AI, voice and face recognition, mass surveillance of cellphones and forced DNA collection to control Uighurs’ daily lives,” Mr. Hamut said through a translator. “There are unprecedented restrictions under religious lives of Uighurs. The government has confiscated and burned religious books and demolished mosques. Religious activities that were once legal are now illegal and an excuse for persecution.”

The ministerial opened after years of criticism that the State Department did too little to push back against global religious persecution.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the ministerial demonstrates a dramatic change in policy from one administration to the next.

“After the eight years of the Obama administration, we’re more appreciative than ever for President Trump’s emphasis on religious liberty,” Mr. Perkins said in a statement. “With all of the issues competition for the world’s attention, Americans are grateful the White House isn’t overlooking one of the most important.”

There are some indications that religious persecution around the world is getting worse.

A Pew Research Center report published last month found that 28 percent of countries had high or very high levels of government restriction on religion, up from 25 percent the previous year.

A State Department report released this year once again singled out several countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, as flagrant abusers of human rights.

Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute and an adviser to the State Department on the summit, said the ministerial signals America’s willingness to lead on the issue of religious freedom.

“This gathering represents a historic opportunity for the United States,” Mr. Farr said in a statement. “The time is now for our nation to lead a global effort in advancing this fundamental right, without which no human being, and no society, can flourish.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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