- - Sunday, July 21, 2019

President Donald Trump promised survivors of religious persecution who visited the Oval Office yesterday that he will forever support them in their attempts to secure religious freedom.

“It’s really an honor to be with you and I will stand side by side with you forever,” the president told a multi-faith delegation of survivors and victims of religious persecution from over 16 different countries. “You’ve been through a lot — more than most people could ever endure, and I want to congratulate you.”

Members of the delegation are in Washington, D.C., attending the administration’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Sam Brownback, head of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

“We have a very important group of people standing alongside of me,” said Mr. Trump. “With us today are men and women of many different religious traditions from many different countries. But what you have in common is each of you has suffered tremendously for your faith. You’ve endured harassment, threats, attacks, trials, imprisonment, and torture. … I’m very proud of you.”

“In America we’ve always understood that our rights come from God, not from government,” said the president. “In our Bill of Rights the first liberty is religious liberty. Each of us has the rights to follow the dictates of our conscience and the demands of our religious conviction. We know that if people are not free to practice their faith then all of the freedoms are at risk. … That’s why Americans will never tire in our efforts to defend and promote religious freedom.” 

During the July 17 White House meeting persecuted religious minority members shared their stories with the president and thanked him for his support. Some petitioned him to discuss their cases with their governments.

Iranian Assyrian human rights activist Dabrina Bet Tamraz, whose parents and brother are currently facing lengthy prison sentences, was among those present. “Mr. President, I’m part of a Christian minority from Iran,” she said. “My family is being persecuted in Iran. … We would appreciate it if you would mention my family but also Christian persecution in Iran in negotiations with or about Iran.”

“I will,” replied Mr. Trump. “I’m going to get the information. I will.”

A visibly moved president responded to the at-times emotional pleas, and shook and held attendees’ hands while they spoke, promising to follow up.

“I’m from Bangladesh” a country where 18 million members of minority religions are facing severe persecution, one woman said. “My request is, please help us, the Bangladesh people,” she pleaded as the president reached out and held her hand. “We don’t want to leave our country. I have lost my home. They burned my home. They’ve taken my land.”

“Who took the home? Who took the land?” asked Mr. Trump. “The Muslim fundamentalist group,” she replied. “They are always they’re getting political shelter. Always.”

During the meeting Ambassador Brownback introduced victims to the president and encouraged them to share their stories.

“This year is the largest meeting ever held in the world on religious freedom,” said Mr. Brownback, who introduced 2018 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Nadia Murad. Murad is a Yezidi believer who escaped captivity after ISIS fighters massacred 600 Yezidi men in her village including several of her family members and then took her and hundreds of other Yezidi women and girls as prisoners. 

“Of course, [Pastor] Andrew Brunson you busted out of a Turkish prison,” continued Mr. Brownback. “This gentleman [Farid Ahmed] was at Christchurch in the shootings of the mosque that took place. … Miriam Ibraheem is here. She was in a Sudanese jail while she was pregnant and had a death penalty for her, but people advocated for her around the world and she and her child are alive today.”

“That’s great, that’s good,” said Mr. Trump. “You feeling good? Everything fine?” he said, addressing Ibraheem.

President Trump also spoke with Rev. Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).

“As Christians in Myanmar we are being oppressed and tortured by the Myanmar military government,” said Mr. Samson. “We don’t have … religious freedom.” Samson asked the president to focus on the ethnic minority people of Myanmar and thanked Trump for recently imposing sanctions on Myanmar’s top general and three senior officers for human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims and other religious minorities. 

The president told those gathered that “a lot of individual breakout meetings” are taking place at the Ministerial, and that “we’re getting a lot of ideas as to how we can help.”

“These folks here represent the faiths of billions of people around the world and the United States is the main country — not the only, and many other allies are coming along—but we’re the main country to stand up for their religious freedom,” said Mr. Brownback.

“So when you say, ‘Other countries are coming along’—and some aren’t coming along, I assume, right? Some aren’t doing much,” asked the president. “Who are the good ones?”

Mr. Brownback replied that he’s been encouraged by the British government’s response to religious persecution, as well as by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which is home to nearly a million Catholics and just “hosted the very first Papal visit on the Arabian Peninsula in the history of mankind.”

President Trump’s spiritual advisor Paula White, who was also present at the meeting, told Trump that responses to invitations to attend this year’s Ministerial had been so great that “thousands” of people “from all over the world” were unable to be accommodated.

“Thousands of people couldn’t get in yesterday?” asked Mr.Trump. “Next year we’ll need to get a much bigger room I guess.” 

• Sheryl Henderson Blunt is a former senior writer for Christianity Today and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship Alumna.

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