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STUDYING RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION, in all its ghastly forms, concentrates the mind. However Americans feel about the country’s domestic culture wars, most can agree in abhorring the imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs in China, the arrest and torture of Jehovah Witnesses in Russia, the jailing of so-called blasphemers in Pakistan. Such brutal assaults on basic religious liberty can make America’s internal debates on the term’s precise meaning seem rather petty.
That universally-felt horror was one impulse behind what Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, called the largest human-rights meeting his department had ever staged. For the second year running he convened a “ministerial on religious freedom”, an event that is growing in scale and scope. This year’s, which concluded on July 18th, involved over 100 governments as well as 1,000 activists of every religious and political hue. Among the speakers were survivors of religiously-targeted acts of terror over the past year: against Jews in Pittsburgh, Muslims in New Zealand and Christians in Sri Lanka.
Other purposes were being served too: for Mr Pompeo and Mike Pence, the vice-president, such events are a way of reassuring their fellow evangelicals, concerned about co-religionists in China and the Middle East. But it would be unfair to dismiss the event completely as an exercise in short-term domestic politics. Nor indeed, can the Trump administration monopolise whatever credit is due.
In many ways, the foreign service’s ability to host such gatherings reflects a tradition of religion-based diplomacy which has developed, under different administrations, over two decades. The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act mandated two agencies to monitor global persecution: the State Department and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a panel appointed by Congress and the White House whose members have been distinguished and diverse. Whatever personal agendas lurked in the background, this week’s meeting felt “more professional than political”, says Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
The event will not silence those who accuse the Trump administration of hypocrisy in matters of religion: because, for example, it often excoriates the Shia rulers of Iran while giving a free-ish pass to its own Sunni Muslim friends. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings think-tank puts it, “nothing in this ministerial changes the fact that America encourages and empowers the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia.” But at least the world’s worst persecutors (of which the State Department keeps a careful score) were left off the list of participants in this week’s gathering: no stiff white cards for the likes of China, Pakistan or North Korea.
As Katrina Lantos Swett, a former USCIRF chair (and veteran Democrat) observes, the old American consensus on the duty to proclaim religious liberty to the world, and call out terrible violators, has frayed but not completely disappeared.
Still, the signs of that fraying are all too evident. Start with party politics: Sam Brownback, the Republican politician who is now America’s religious-freedom envoy, won no Democratic support when he was being confirmed. By contrast, some Republicans had voted for his Democratically-nominated predecessor, Rabbi David Saperstein.
More fundamentally, Mr Pompeo is horrifying liberal-minded rights advocates by dismantling the approach to rights and diplomacy that was developed by Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. She had emphasised women’s rights, reproductive rights and gay rights. She was not indifferent to matters of faith but she spoke often of “religious engagement”, implying that faiths could be harnessed and also challenged.
At times, the change of stance can seem tortuous. This year, American embassies were told not to hoist gay-pride banners on their flagpoles, although it was specified that they could be displayed more discreetly. The Trump administration has affirmed America’s opposition to the criminalisation of gay sex, but it plainly has little appetite for preaching against homophobia in places, from Brazil to Georgia, where that sentiment is rife.
And in some recent UN debates. America has requested the removal of references to “sexual and reproductive rights” which might imply acceptance of abortion. That has put America in the same corner as Russia and the Muslim countries whose repressive policies were under fire at this week’s State Department gathering. Pasquale Annichino, of the Cambridge Institute on Religion and International Studies, expects an increasing convergence between Russia and the Trump administration when matters of gender, sexuality and reproduction are discussed in global bodies.
For critics, Mr Pompeo’s most fateful recent move has been in the realm of the intellect. He has established a Commission on Unalienable Rights, chaired by a conservative Catholic law professor, Mary Ann Glendon, with a brief to consider which human entitlements are clearly laid down by the American constitution and international conventions.
As Mr Pompeo explained the exercise: “Not everything good, or everything granted by a government, can be a universal right.” There seems little doubt that freedom to profess, manifest and teach a religion, what he often describes as “our first liberty”, will be loudly reaffirmed by the panel of scholars. But so-called “new” rights, concerning sex and reproduction, may well be struck off their list.
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