Persecution Fears Rise as Biden Backs Away From Religious Freedom Abroad

Blinken 'repudiation' of Trump religious liberty policies may exacerbate human rights abuses

President Biden delivers speech on Afghanistan on Apr. 14 / Getty Images
April 22, 2021

The Biden administration's pledge to roll back Trump-era policies promoting religious freedom abroad threatens to undermine America’s ability to protect religious minorities in China, the Middle East, and beyond.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March reversed a 2020 executive order that directed federal agencies to "prioritize international religious freedom in the planning and implementation of United States foreign policy." The order also allocated $50 million in foreign assistance funding and expanded religious freedom training to federal employees. He vowed to "repudiate" the Trump administration's focus on religious freedom in foreign policy, which he said came at the cost of other human rights issues such as gay rights and abortion.

The Biden White House is backing away from advocacy for religious freedom abroad at a time when unscrupulous regimes are cracking down on religious minorities in China, Ethiopia, and across the Middle East. Olivia Enos, a senior policy analyst at Heritage Foundation, said America's drawdown in the face of persecution would hamper its broader foreign policy interests and human rights commitments.

"I think it would be a huge mistake for the Biden administration not to build momentum from the work done by the Trump administration to promote religious freedom," she said.

The Biden administration has not yet filled several key positions at the State Department and the National Security Council dedicated to religious freedom. The staffing shortage prompted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to urge Biden to promptly fill the positions in its annual report published in April.

The State Department declined to comment on any potential nominations. A spokeswoman said the administration "is deeply committed to advancing universal respect for freedom of religion or belief for all people around the world" but didn't answer questions about criticisms of the department's reorientation under Biden. The White House declined to comment.

Religious liberty advocates in the Trump administration played a key role in shaping America's strong stand against China's human rights abuses according to experts, crafting sanction regimes for religious freedom violators and pushing for the designation of the Uyghur genocide. If Biden weakens the emphasis on religious liberty, then that might weaken America's ability to hold China accountable.

"There are several instances where Chinese Communist Party members were sanctioned in no small part due to the people throughout the administration who worked on religious freedom pushing for it," Enos said. While the abuses in China have dominated headlines, religious freedom plays a role in other international crises around the world.

The Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers have come under fire from activists for soft-pedaling the U.S. government’s response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Tigray, a northern region of Ethiopia. Footage from the region shows pro-government forces shelling churches in the region and witnesses reported the massacre of hundreds of people who sought refuge inside an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The State Department has issued statements concerning the presence of foreign troops in the region, and lawmakers have condemned the violence.

Additionally, a growing number of Christian activists have raised alarm about the targeting of Christian believers in Nigeria. The International Committee on Nigeria praised President Trump’s executive order on religious freedom as "a continued commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedoms abroad by stopping crimes against people of faith." The continued killings suggest a crisis that will outlast transitions of presidential power.

Chris Seiple, senior fellow for comparative religion at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, said the Biden administration is still young and the administration’s appointments have not been made yet, making it difficult to draw conclusions about Biden’s approach to religious freedom. But he said there will be a "natural pushback" on the Trump administration’s priorities.

"If you want to play politics, religious freedom for people on the left of center is a tainted word that only means Trump and that only means bad," he said. "Don’t disabuse America of one of its founding narratives because you think religious freedom is tainted by the previous administration."

Despite signs that the Biden administration might be switching gears, Nury Turkel, a USCIRF commissioner and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, remains "cautiously optimistic." He said both Democratic and Republican administrations should care about religious liberty because it is "inseparable from core American values."

"Religious freedom is the first human right for us as Americans," Turkel, a Uyghur activist, said. "It is included in the Declaration of Independence, which is a much older document than the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights."

Yuichiro Kakutani contributed to this report.