- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2019

As what was billed as the largest gathering on religious freedom around the world at the U.S. State Department wrapped up on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence took a veiled swipe at the political debate that is consuming Washington these days.

“Regrettably, the world’s oldest hatred has found a voice in the halls of our United States Congress,” Mr. Pence said in a prepared speech before the 1,000-plus delegation of religious and civil society leaders from around the world. “Under this President, we will respect the sovereignty and diverse cultures of every nation, but I promise all of you America will continue to be that city on a hill that John Winthrop spoke about.”

Mr. Pence did not specify who was the focus of his remarks, but they came amid an escalating debate over charges of anti-Semitism directed at Democratic lawmakers who support the global boycott, divest, and sanctions (BDS) movement to protest the Israeli government’s policies regarding the Palestinian territory. President Trump, at a rally in North Carolina the night before, said Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somalia-born Democratic freshman from Minnesota, had “a history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds.”

On Tuesday, Ms. Omar, joined by fellow Democratic Reps. John Lewis of Georgia and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, introduced a resolution saying Americans had a right to participate in BDS efforts. A similar resolution opposing BDS — sponsored Democratic Bradley Scott Schneider of Illinois — has been introduced in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Pence highlighted the administration’s religious liberty campaigns, including securing the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson after his 2016 arrest in Turkey for what the government said was supporting a coup.

Mr. Brunson received a warm ovation at the State Department Thursday. Earlier in the morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the pastor’s return marked among his highest moments as secretary, along with the moment when North Korea released three American prisoners into Mr. Pompeo’s custody. Upon return to the U.S., one of the men passed along a notecard with Psalm 126 — “The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with joy” — written on it, a card which Mr. Pompeo said he now keeps on his office wall.

“People everywhere will see that our movement is just getting started,” said Mr. Pompeo.

Notable nations absent from the three-day summit, which culminated on Thursday evening with an event at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, were officials from China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. All three nations drew stark criticism in a recently released report from the State Dept. on the state of religious freedom within their borders.

Earlier in the day, delegates from around the world condemned religious intolerance and called for greater protection of a right recognized as universal by the United Nations.

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto said international institutions needed to do more to call out and condemn the growing global persecution against Christians.

“If you look at the international discourse and the discussion going on in European media and political elite, you’ll have to see that Christianophobia is being portrayed as if it was the last acceptable form of discrimination,” said Mr. Szijjarto.

Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephanus Abraham Blok said the gathering highlighted the need to protect all those persecuted for their religious beliefs, including Yazidis in Iraq, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and, “for that matter, nonbelievers all over the globe.”

Bishop Paul Richard Gallagher, representing Pope Francis, called for an end to what he termed the “discriminatory use of the term ‘minority,’” which, he said, “engenders feelings of isolation.”

And the representative from Bahrain boasted of the construction of new churches and said there was a need for greater tolerance of other faiths in Muslim-majority nations.

“Extremist discourse continues to threaten the region,” said Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

This week’s summit is the second held in the District of Columbia, tripling in size from the 2018 inaugural event. Trump administration officials say they are already preparing for a third gathering in 2020.

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