- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The State Department is hosting what it calls the largest-ever international gathering on the state of religious liberty around the world, though representatives from one nearby nation were forced to stay home.

Evangelical leaders from Cuba will not be participating due to a travel ban imposed by the government, the State Department said, condemning the move by officials in Havana but saying it was precisely why such a gathering was needed.

“This is exactly the type of human rights violation that we and ministerial attendees from all over the world are working to expose and to prevent,” said State Department official Kristina Arriaga, a commissioner for the summit.

The religious liberty ministerial — attracting over 100 diplomats and 1,000 leaders from faiths ranging from Christianity and Islam to Buddhism, Judaism and others around the globe — was billed by U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green as “the largest human rights-related gathering at the U.S. Department of State.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo observed the unifying thread for the diverse group in opening remarks Tuesday morning.

“Despite our many differences, everyone here agrees on the need for religious pluralism,” said Mr. Pompeo.

Last year’s inaugural gathering drew representatives from 80 nations, and highlighted a touchstone of the Trump administration’s foreign policy: to provide oxygen for those advocating for religious freedom and tolerance, a principle officials say is increasingly under attack around the world.

A Pew Research Study published on Monday found growing religious restrictions around the world.

“The latest data shows that 52 governments — including some in very populous countries like China, Indonesia and Russia — impose either ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007,” concluded the report.

Pew researchers found instances of religious persecution in the U.S., too, citing the 2017 “Unite the Right” Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists protested the removal of a Confederate statute from a park, displayed swastika flags, and chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”

The report also raised concerns with Chinese internment of Uighur Muslims in a northwest province and scuttling of Christian missionaries in Russia.

Sam Brownback, the onetime senator and governor of Kansas who now serves as the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, sounded a somber note on the summit’s opening on Tuesday.

“Religious persecution is not a thing of the past,” he said.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi of the Pittsburgh synagogue attacked last October by an anti-Semitic gunman, told those gathered religious freedom cannot rest on laws alone, but must be accompanied by a changing of cultural attitudes.

“How do I console a congregant who has been unable to set foot inside any synagogue since October 27?” the rabbi asked.

The ministerial has not come without some criticism, including from liberal voices who have suggested “religious liberty” has become a rallying cry for conservative Christians and others to roll back equal-rights laws protecting gays and other historically marginalized groups.

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign will hold an event “on the sidelines” of the ministerial to talk about protecting religious liberty within a context that also protects LGBTQ rights.

“We do take freedom of religious seriously, but we also take reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights internationally seriously,” Ryan Thoreson, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Times, during a session break on Tuesday.

He attended Tuesday’s sessions and said there had been “good discussions in ways that religion can be used to help the rights of the religious and even nonbelievers.”

Vice President Mike Pence will speak on Thursday to conclude the summit, signaling the importance the issue has assumed for the administration. The Atlantic magazine recently wrote, “Under Trump, religious freedom has assumed what is arguably an unprecedented dominance in foreign affairs.”

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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