On September 23, 2019, the U.S. held an event at the U.N. General Assembly entitled “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom.” Among the speakers was President Trump. President Trump was the first ever U.S. President (or head of state) to have spoken at an event exclusively focused on religious freedom at the U.N.
Vice-President Pence and Secretary Pompeo also addressed the attendees, which included head of state, Ambassadors, civil society representatives and survivors of religious persecution.
President Trump took the opportunity to remind the attendees of some facts pertaining religious persecution. He said that “Regrettably, the religious freedom enjoyed by American citizens is rare in the world. Approximately 80% of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted, or even banned… As we speak, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Yazidis, and many other people of faith are being jailed, sanctioned, tortured, and even murdered, often at the hands of their own government, simply for expressing their deeply held religious beliefs.” President Trump listed some of the actions required to protect religious freedom internationally, including “to 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.”
President Trump emphasized the work carried out by his Administration to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief both at home and internationally. He praised his Administration for bringing the world together at the Ministerial to Protect Religious Freedom, among other events, and on its role in ensuring the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson imprisoned in Turkey. He highlighted the initiative, introduced by his Administration earlier this year, to create the International Religious Freedom Alliance (IFR Alliance), the first-ever international body devoted to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally. Secretary Pompeo later called upon states, religious leaders and civil society representatives to join the IFR Alliance.
President Trump also seized the opportunity to announce additional initiatives that the U.S. Administration will lead in the coming years. Among others, he confirmed that the U.S. will dedicate an additional $25 million to protect religious sites and relics. He announced that the U.S. will form a coalition of U.S. private businesses interested in promoting the protection of religious freedom, the first initiative of this sort. As President Trump emphasized: “This initiative will encourage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace.” He added that: “Too often, people in positions of power preach diversity while silencing, shunning, or censoring the faithful. True tolerance means respecting the right of all people to express their deeply held religious beliefs.” More details are to follow.
The work carried out by the Trump Administration on the subject of freedom of religion or belief is worthy of praise.New initiatives to engage businesses on the issue of religious freedom is also noteworthy. However, the involvement of businesses can go even further. Business can, and must, play an active role in protecting not only religious freedom but also other human rights, in the U.S. and internationally.
President Trump was followed by Secretary-General António Guterres who presented two freedom of religion or belief related initiatives recently launched by the U.N., including the U.N. Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech and the U.N. Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites (in the face of growing attacks on places of worship). Guterres emphasized that: “The best way to promote international religious freedom is by uniting our voices for good, countering messages of hate with messages of peace, embracing diversity and protecting human rights everywhere.”
The event concluded with the testimonies of three advocates Jewher Ilham, daughter of the imprisoned Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, Dabrina Bet Tamraz, daughter of Iranian Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz and Rabbi Faiz Algaradi, one of the last members of the Jewish community in Yemen, a community which has been systematically driven out by repressive policies and persecution. Their powerful testimonies added narrative to what the event was all about. The “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom” is about real experiences of people of faith around the world, real persecution, real struggles. We all need to answer to this call. International actors, states, religious leaders, civil society representatives, business leaders. The global issue requires a truly global response.