The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
Divine inspiration isn’t often highlighted in American diplomacy. Yet in his office Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a framed index card with words from Psalm 126: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
The handwritten note was slipped into Pompeo’s hand, he said, by three Americans—Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song, and Tony Kim—after they were freed by North Korea last May. Pompeo, who secured their release in Pyongyang then escorted them home, called it “one of the most joyful moments of my life.” The note hangs in his office, he said, “because it reminds me of the power of faith in even the most trying times.”
In ways both subtle and sublime Pompeo, 55, is opening a new front in American foreign policy by making religious freedom a central theme and his own Christian faith a regular part of the conversation. Both were on display during last month’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which he hosted in Washington.
Pompeo is opening a new front in American foreign policy by making religious freedom a central theme.
The three-day gathering drew 1,000 people representing 106 countries and multiple faith groups. It featured top diplomats, former heads of state, and Vice President Mike Pence all appearing alongside survivors of religious persecution and related violence.
Underscoring the relevance was its opening panel of speakers: Jewish Rabbi Jeffrey Myers from the Pittsburgh synagogue where a mass shooter killed 11 people last October; Muslim Farid Ahmed from the New Zealand mosque where 51 people, including his wife, were massacred in March; and Christian Yamina Ravindran from the churches in Sri Lanka where more than 300 people died in Easter Sunday bombings.
Each recalled headline news, but also signaled an emphasis in this year’s ministerial—that persecution affects all faiths around the globe.
The second such event, this ministerial was a determined effort by Pompeo, Ambassador Sam Brownback, and others to make the gathering a fixture. The 2018 inaugural event was hastily pulled together and had more the feel of the Trump administration playing to its domestic political base. This year’s event consciously drew from all faiths across all continents—and carried a grueling schedule. Besides in-depth breakout sessions on three tracks, one listing of side events I received ran 63 pages long.
For an administration not seen as conciliatory, the sight of political and religious opponents sitting down to an overflow auditorium was striking and largely unnoted by U.S. media.
One panel featured D.C.-area Imam Mohamed Magid with Texas megachurch pastor Bob Roberts. Another had Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sitting down with former Republican lawmaker Frank Wolf.
There was also unusual buy-in from European leaders, including addresses by the EU’s special envoy Ján Figel', former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and House of Lords parliamentarian David Alton.
Despite avid pledges from dozens of countries to do more to battle religious persecution, news of the week underscored the difficulty of turning so much talk into action.
Dignitaries from leading persecutors like Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Iran, and North Korea were notably absent.
Reports emerged the Trump administration may set next year’s refugee cap at zero. In an ironic twist, those featured at the ministerial for the persecution they’ve endured abroad aren’t likely to be granted safe haven in the United States.
U.S. faith-based groups, including participants at the ministerial, oppose the move. Calling the refugee resettlement program “a lifeline” for persecuted Christians and others, World Relief President Scott Arbeiter told me it is “on a track toward being largely dismantled.” Arbeiter said he hoped President Trump would return to historic norms with ceilings of 75,000 or more.
Pompeo told me, “These people would much prefer to stay in their home country … so our mission set has been to drive better outcomes for them where they are.” Yet American-led rebuilding efforts in Iraq for those displaced by ISIS, numerous delegates at the event attested, have been notably sluggish.
With this new emphasis in foreign policy, let’s be bold and hopeful we may see words transformed into action.
For more from the 2019 ministerial visit state.gov/ 2019-ministerial-to-advance-religious-freedom/