Pence, Pompeo Address Religious Freedom Ministerial

Pence: If Turkey doesn't free pastor Andrew Brunson, 'the United States will impose significant sanctions'

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo / Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered remarks at the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on Thursday. The summit includes delegates from about 80 countries and representatives from civil society organizations from around the world, as well as victims of religious persecution who have offered to share their stories.

Pompeo said America is committed to promoting religious freedom "because it is not exclusively an American right. It is a God-given, universal right bestowed on all of mankind."

He announced the State Department will provide an additional 17 million dollars for de-mining efforts in the Nineveh region of Iraq. "This is on top of the 90 million we have provided countrywide this year alone," he noted. Of the fewer than 250,000 Christians estimated to remain in Iraq, most live in the Nineveh Plains and Iraqi Kurdistan regions.

Pompeo said the U.S. will later today release the Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action. "These documents reassert the United States’ unwavering commitment to promoting and defending religious freedom. They recommend concrete ways the international community and governments can do more to protect religious freedom and vulnerable religious communities."

The secretary of state also said there will be another ministerial on religious freedom next year.

Pence opened his remarks by recounting America’s longstanding dedication to religious liberty. Once America achieved independence, "the American founders enshrined religious freedom as the first freedom in the Constitution of the United States, and America has always and will always lead the world by our example."

When religious freedom is denied, Pence observed, other freedoms suffer and even democratic institutions are imperiled. Nations that lack religious freedom breed radicalism and violence which tend to spillover to neighboring countries. America supports religious freedom because it is both right and essential to global peace and security.

The vice president cited several examples of countries that violate religious freedom. In China, the Tibetan people have been repressed for over 70 years. The Chinese government is also detaining hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Uighur Muslims in so-called reeducation camps, which involve relentless political indoctrination.

Tahir Hamut, a Uighur poet and filmmaker, told attendees of the Ministerial on Tuesday that he believes "the Chinese government is likely to carry out mass killings of Uighurs in concentration like the Nazis did to Jewish people."

Pence then discussed North Korea, noting that their abuses are even worse. "There is no escaping the plain fact that North Korea’s leadership has exacted unparalleled privation and cruelty upon its people for decades." Christians in North Korea, he pointed out, are regularly executed or condemned to forced labor.

Pence also referenced the suffering of religious minorities in Iran, and he encouraged the people of Iran "to press on with courage in the cause of freedom and a peaceful future for your people."

Her further noted Religious freedom is under threat even in mostly free societies. In Europe, "just seventy years after the Holocaust, attacks on Jews, even on aging Holocaust survivors, are growing at an alarming rate," Pence said.

The vice president announced two new initiatives that will be launched by the United States: the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, and the International Religious Freedom fund. The first program will enable the State Department and USAID to partner with local faith and community leaders to rapidly and more effectively deliver aid to persecuted individuals and families. The International Religious Freedom fund will bring together the United States and other nations to support those fighting for religious freedom around the world.

Pence also gave attention the Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor who has been detained in Turkey for almost two years. Brunson was transferred from prison to house arrest yesterday, a move the vice president described as "a welcome first step," but one that is "not good enough." He then offered a pointed warning to Turkey.

"If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America," said Pence, "the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free."

President Donald Trump reiterated Pence's warning Thursday on Twitter, saying the "United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson" and the "innocent man of faith should be released immediately!"