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Past, present U.S. officials cite value of protecting religious freedom

International Religious Freedom Summit was held July 13-15 in Washington

WASHINGTON — In office or out of office, past and present leaders in the U.S. government stressed the need to push for religious freedom across the world during the July 13-15 International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington.

Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state and CIA director, focused on China in his 10-minute speech.

“Forced abortion and sterilization should strike at the heart of every American who cares — or claims to care — about what happens in the world,” Pompeo said, repeating a charge leveled against China’s treatment of Uighur Muslim women.

“A society that lacks regard for religious liberty will soon see all political liberties stamped out,” Pompeo said. “They will soon see genocide. We must prevent genocide from happening.”

He added, “When people lose their ability to practice their faith, authoritarian regimes will dominate.”

Pompeo noted that during the Chinese Communist Party’s recent 100th anniversary celebration, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, said that any nation that interferes with China’s aims “will find itself on a collision course with a great wall of steel.”

“We should be that steel,” Pompeo said. “We should be that backbone.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delivered prerecorded remarks, as did Samantha Power, the current administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and onetime U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as well as Pompeo’s successor as secretary of state, Antony Blinken.

“Human rights are indivisible” including “a person’s right to speak, to assemble or to participate in the political in their country,” Blinken said in his message. If religious freedom is not protected, he added, “all other rights are jeopardized too.”

The State Department has worked at “facilitating the release of wrongly detained individuals,” Blinken said, and “we’ll keep going.”

The United States, he added, “was founded in part on the belief that everyone … should be able to believe what they choose.”

“In 56 countries around the world, people are silenced, persecuted or subject to worse for their religious beliefs,” Power said, adding, “More people are subject to restrictions than they were a decade ago.”

Denying religious freedom is “associated with higher levels of conflict and violence,” Power said. Such nations also are “twice as likely to witness social conflict as those with few or no restrictions,” she noted.

“Lasting peace, Power added, “will require freedom of worship and access to holy sites and places of worship for people of all faiths.”

Testimony from survivors of religious repression punctuated the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington.

Wai Wai Nu, an ethnic Rohingya Muslim woman who became founder of the Women’s Peace Network, talked of experiences in Myanmar; speakers referred to the country as Burma during the summit’s plenary sessions.

“I was born and grew up in Rakhine state in the western part of Burma,” Nu said. “Our existence has become a crime due to our ethnicity and religion.”

She added, “For decades, the Burmese government has denied our history, our identity, our citizenship, and denied us our basic human rights: to travel, to marry, to go to school, to have access to health care and to practice religion, and the list goes on.”

Nu said, “I was born to insecurity and persecution. My life has been subject to several forms of discrimination and persecution, including being in prison for seven years at the age of 18 with my entire family. Yet I feel I’m a privileged one in my community. … There was nothing comparable to the 1.1 million victims and survivors in Bangladeshi refugee camps who had to flee.”

“It is now more important than ever to uplift the religious minorities and act to protect religious freedom,” Nu said.

Charges of genocide — whoever the victim, whoever the perpetrator — “must be pursued,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said July 14 at the summit.

Smith, who referenced the genocides of Jews and Armenians as examples of 20th-century genocides, focused his remarks on China.

“Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have exponentially increased persecution against religious believers — including Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners — in ways not seen since the Cultural Revolution,” he said.

Smith added that ever since the International Religious Freedom Act was passed and signed in 1998, China has been listed as a “country of particular concern” in human rights reports mandated by the law. China is “an egregious violator of religious freedom,” he said.

“The Chinese Communist Party is today systematically erasing Islam in western China: bulldozing mosques and shrines, severely throttling all religious practice, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith,” Smith said.

Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, garnered applause at the summit when she said Biden would appoint a new at-large ambassador for international religious freedom “in the coming weeks.” The seat has been vacant since Brownback exited the post with other appointees from the Donald Trump administration.

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