- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2018

There’s no love lost between Vice President Mike Pence and North Korea.

Months after the communist regime denounced the vice president as a “political dummy,” Mr. Pence shot back with blistering criticisms Thursday to close out the State Department’s inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

The vice president said the ongoing denuclearization negotiations should not overshadow North Korea’s brutality toward its own people.

“While we all hope that relations between the United States and North Korea continue to improve, and we certainly hope that the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program can be eliminated, there is no escaping the plain fact that North Korea’s leadership has exacted unparalleled privation and cruelty upon its people for decades,” he said.

The three-day religious freedom summit was convened by the State Department to highlight concrete ways that the international community can preempt religious persecution around the world.

More than 80 countries sent delegations to the ministerial, representing a diverse array of faith groups including Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims.

North Korea wasn’t the only human rights abuser on the vice president’s hit list.

Mr. Pence said the Nicaraguan government is “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church”; Christians and other religious minorities are “routinely fined, flogged, arrested, assaulted, and even killed” in Iran; and the Russians have “arrested and imprisoned” scores of Jehovah’s Witnesses, essentially banning the group’s adherents from practicing their faith.

The vice president also took Turkey to task for continuing to detain an American pastor who was caught up in the crackdown following the failed 2016 coup attempt. Mr. Pence said the Trump administration will impose economic sanctions on Turkey until Andrew Brunson is set free.

“And to President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the President of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences,” Mr. Pence said. “If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”

The vice president also had strong words for the Chinese government, pointing to Beijing’s policy of sending Uyghur Muslims and other religious dissidents to “re-education camps, where they’re forced to endure around-the-clock political indoctrination and to denounce their religious beliefs and cultural identity.”

Yet for all of China’s abuses, Mr. Pence said “their neighbor in North Korea is much worse.” He went so far as to say that the persecution of Christians north of the DMZ has “no rival on the Earth.”

“It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding and often fatal,” Mr. Pence said. “The mere possession of a Christian Bible is a capital offense. And those identified by the regime as Christians are regularly executed or condemned with their families to North Korea’s gulags.”

The vice president also accused the regime of using “torture, mass starvation, public executions, murders and even forced abortions” to maintain its grip on power. He said as many as 130,000 North Koreans are currently serving life sentences in “unimaginably brutal slave labor camps.”

Mr. Pence’s remarks come one day after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

At the hearing, Sen. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said he feared the United States was being “taken for a ride” by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the denuclearization negotiations.

In his remarks Thursday at the ministerial, Mr. Pompeo said the religious freedom summit “truly reflects President Trump’s ironclad commitment to protecting this important liberty” around the world.

“Millions of people of all faiths are suffering every day,” he said. “But the Trump administration will not be silent. As part of that, the State Department will continue the good work it has already done for many years to ensure religious freedom.”

Mr. Pompeo announced several steps that the State Department is taking right now to alleviate the suffering of persecuted faith groups.

The State Department will provide an additional $17 million in funding toward clearing landmines in the Ninevah region in Iraq, an area historically home to religious minorities.

Mr. Pompeo said the agency will release Thursday two documents, the Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action, reasserting America’s “unwavering commitment to promoting and defending religious freedom.” Statements addressing human rights abuses in Burma, China and Iran will also be forthcoming, he said.

And the State Department plans to hold another religious freedom summit next year, Mr. Pompeo said, as well as regional follow-up conferences around the world to build on the ministerial’s progress.

“The United States advances religious freedom in our foreign policy because it is not exclusively an American right,” Mr. Pompeo said. “It is a God-given universal right bestowed on all of mankind.”

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

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