President Trump on Monday became the first sitting U.S. president to call on foreign leaders at the U.N. to protect religious freedom around the world, saying nations have an “urgent moral duty” to stop persecution of the faithful and the destruction of religious sites.
Hosting a forum on religious freedom at the start of the annual United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Trump said 80% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted or banned.
“The United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution,” Mr. Trump said in a speech. “Stop the crimes against people of faith. Release prisoners of conscience. Repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief. Protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed.”
Although Mr. Trump didn’t call out specific countries, Vice President Mike Pence did. Before introducing the president, Mr. Pence cited Iran, China, Venezuela and Nicaragua for carrying out crimes against people of faith.
“The regime in Iran brutally persecutes Christians, Sunnis, Bahai’i, and Jews,” Mr. Pence said. “In Iraq, Iran-backed militias terrorize Christians and Yazidis who were nearly wiped out by ISIS’s recent campaign of genocide.”
He said the Communist Party in China “has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in the Muslim population.”
Mr. Pence also accused the regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
“And in Venezuela, the dictator Nicolas Maduro uses anti-hate laws to prosecute clergy, even as his media cronies spread anti-Semitism by trivializing the Holocaust,” he said.
Both Mr. Pence and Mr. Trump mentioned murderous attacks on Jews at synagogues in the U.S. in the past year and bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 300 Christians on Easter Sunday.
“These attacks strike at the heart of everything free peoples hold sacred,” Mr. Pence said.
Among those in the audience was American pastor Andrew Brunson, who was freed from captivity in Turkey last year at the urging of Mr. Trump’s administration.
Mr. Trump said of the Obama administration’s efforts to gain the pastor’s release, “I don’t think they tried too hard, unfortunately.”
The president pledged $25 million from the U.S. to protect religious freedom and stop the destruction of religious sites globally. He also said his administration is forming a first-ever coalition of business leaders to fight religious persecution in various countries.
Also in the audience was Tony Perkins, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which issued a report last year with recommendations for the administration that included protecting places of worship and other holy sites.
The report recommended that the U.S. allocate money through the State Department’s anti-terrorism assistance program and relevant Defense Department programs “to train and equip local officials and communities to protect places of worship and other holy sites, especially in countries where such sites face a high risk of attack.”
Mr. Perkins, who is also president of the Family Research Council, called the president’s address “a historic speech that goes beyond talking about international religious freedom to taking tangible steps that will lead to people of all faiths being able to securely and publicly worship.”
While noting that no religion is immune from persecution, Mr. Trump said it’s been estimated that 11 Christians are killed per day around the world “for following the teachings of Christ.”
“Who would even think that’s possible in this day and age?” Mr. Trump asked.
“We ask the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God,” the president said. “The United States has a vital role in this critical mission.”
ADF International Director of Global Religious Freedom Kelsey Zorzi called Mr. Trump’s speech “an important and historic moment precisely because religious freedom is too often ignored or downplayed at the U.N.”
“At a time when persecution is on the rise, and over 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom, every country should make securing religious freedom a high priority,” she said.