Donald Trump has long been an easy mark for human rights activists, who regularly slam the president’s fondness for dictators, his hostility toward immigrants and his attacks on the news media.
This week, however, the Trump administration is hosting an event promoting religious freedom that’s uniting some of the president’s fiercest human rights critics with his most fervent supporters.
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It’s an area where even the president’s detractors have said the Trump administration has produced tangible, if still limited, accomplishments.
The administration has said it has successfully nudged foreign governments, such as those in Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates, to host religious freedom conferences, while Britain, Mongolia, Taiwan and Germany have all created ambassadorships to advance the cause. And Poland, acting on the State Department’s recommendation, led the successful effort to get the United Nations to designate Aug. 22 a global day of remembrance for the victims of religious violence.
“Religious freedom is one of these foundational rights,” Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told POLITICO.
But religious freedom is also a concept that some advocates have said the Trump administration selectively touts for political purposes at the expense of other human rights objectives. And some groups plan to make that point at the event.
The conference, dubbed the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, kicks off Monday evening and lasts through Thursday. Vice President Mike Pence is slated to deliver the keynote address, an aide said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to speak as well.
The gathering is set to draw more than 1,000 attendees, including many foreign ministers from countries that support the Trump administration’s goal of promoting religious freedom.
Brownback, a former senator who was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, argued the issue has been sidelined under past administrations.
“Nobody would really tend it,” he said. “Then this administration comes along.”
Trump is not known for being very religious. But his administration’s support for religious freedom happens to fit with one key Trump goal: Pleasing evangelical Christians, a key part of the president’s political base.
Evangelical leaders are deeply concerned about discrimination against Christians overseas, and they have been thrilled with the Republican administration’s focus on religious freedom.
“This administration has reached new levels of commitment on the fundamental right of freedom of religion that’s unprecedented historically, and I hope it will continue for decades ahead,” said Gary Bauer, a prominent Christian conservative activist.
Last month, as he unveiled plans for the conference, Pompeo announced he was elevating two State Department offices that deal with the issue: the Office of International Religious Freedom and the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. The move means the offices will report directly to an undersecretary and get more staff and resources, Pompeo said.
Pompeo and others in the administration often refer to religious freedom as “our first liberty.” That is likely a reference to the prime positioning of religious freedom in the text of the First Amendment.
Still, human rights activists have mixed feelings about the upcoming conference.
While they support any effort aimed at ending the oppression of religious minorities, especially in the wake of attacks on synagogues, mosques and churches in the United States, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, they worry the Trump team is unusually selective in its approach.
For instance, the Trump administration is quick to criticize religious freedom violations in countries it considers adversaries, such as Iran and China. But it often stays silent when similar abuses take place in countries it views as partners, such as Saudi Arabia.
“Essentially, there’s a lot of double standards,” said Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA.
There are also lingering questions about the administration’s treatment of Muslims, not least because of the president’s moves to bar the citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
Advocates acknowledge the administration — Pompeo in particular — is willing to criticize China’s mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, but they wonder if that’s politically convenient because of the administration’s overall efforts to combat rising Chinese influence.
Some activists also worry the focus on religious freedom is crowding out other priorities.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with this being the second ministerial on religious freedom, but I would love to see a first ministerial on government attacks against journalists, or what can be done about authoritarians jailing activists, or any number of other important human rights issues,” said Rob Berschinski, a senior official with Human Rights First.
Asked about these concerns, Brownback stressed that he saw pushing for religious freedom as a way to promote other rights.
“If we get it right, you’re going to get more freedom of assembly. There’s going to be more press freedom. There’s going to be more free speech that’s taking place,” he said.
The ministerial appears open-ended enough that some activists plan to promote their own views either at the conference itself or on its sidelines.
A handful of groups are hosting a side briefing pushing the idea that saving the U.S. refugee resettlement program — which Trump has effectively tried to dismantle — is a critical way to help persecuted religious minorities.
Another gathering, co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign, will delve into the question of whether religious liberty is increasingly being used to deny other freedoms, especially those for women and LGBTQ people.
The event appears to be a response to Pompeo’s recent creation of a human rights panel, called the Commission on Unalienable Rights. He has charged the group with reexamining basic human rights principles. The panel’s members include several religious thinkers, some of them very conservative.
State Department officials insist the panel is merely an advisory panel and that it won’t make policy. But rights activists worry it will lay the groundwork for future efforts to deemphasize the rights of the LGBTQ community and women.