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Protecting the rights of believers overseas


WORLD Radio - Protecting the rights of believers overseas

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: protecting international religious liberty.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Last week, President Trump signed an executive order redirecting federal funds and diplomatic priorities overseas. The order prioritizes foreign aid and protections for minority religious groups.

BASHAM: It directs the State Department and other federal agencies to reexamine U.S. foreign policy. It puts at least 50 million dollars toward prevention of and response to religious-liberty threats. It also calls on the government to sanction those who violate religious freedom.

Joining us now to analyze the effect of this order is Nina Shea. She heads the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Good morning!

NINA SHEA, GUEST: Good morning, Megan.

BASHAM: What’s your take on the order? Are you pleased with these new requirements?

SHEA: Yes. I think it really is a very important step. I’m hopeful it’s the culminating step of a very long history—really over 70 years—of making international religious freedom part of U.S. foreign policy because it would have, it should have started when the U.S. backed the universal declaration for human rights in 1948. Rights of religious believers were giving shoddy treatment compared to the rights of, say, defense lawyers or trade unionists or other categories, journalists, victims of human rights around the world.

BASHAM: How big a change is this in U.S. policy?

SHEA: Well, that’s what I’m saying. It should be big. We don’t know how it’s going to be implemented, but hopefully this is the implementing step. Because there was an infrastructure after the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to raise religious freedom violations around the world. And still that hasn’t been enough because we have seen over and over again when religious freedom and religious violations, persecuted populations on a massive scale have been overlooked in our foreign policy. And I think we’re seeing that today in Nigeria.

BASHAM: Well, you mentioned Nigeria. Are you thinking that’s one of the areas where this is going to have the biggest impact? Or where do you see this having the biggest impact? 

SHEA: I think it could have a very big impact in Nigeria if this is finally—this is a directive to all of the government agencies. It covers not just the Middle East and it is not limited to religious minorities. And so that helps Nigeria, for example. I’d say China might be another one. But in Nigeria it’s very stark. The reporting is extremely weak on the State Department. Very biased, in fact. So, I think that one of the things that could happen under the executive order is that victims, like the Christians in the middle belt and the northern belt of Nigeria, could be empowered to document what is happening to themselves. The U.S. could give them assistance and training to document the human rights violations in a systematic and comprehensive way so that we have the information. And policy does flow from information and facts.

BASHAM: Do you expect if that change were to happen they would get more balanced media coverage? Or, really, any media coverage at all at this point?

SHEA: Yeah, with analysis of what the context is for these attacks that we’re hearing about in a place like Nigeria, for example, that there would be more details, more of a pattern that you could analyze and say that this is not just a one-off case or this is not just a Hatfield McCoy feud between one group and another group, but this really has a context where jihadists are coming in and yelling, “Allahu Akbar” as they’re beheading Christians, as they’re killing children, dismembering pregnant women, burning churches, that you have a better sense, if you have that kind of texture and detail in the reporting—and it’s often missing in these cases, not always, but sometimes—that you could then identify an intent and a motive.

BASHAM: Well, and I ask that question because just a couple days ago I was looking into various video news services—CNN, Reuters, AFP—and I could only find reference to that particular situation under “ethnic killing.” I couldn’t find anything under “religious killing” or “persecution.”

SHEA: Yeah. So they’re downplaying the religious aspects of this and they being the State Department and the media, which has a symbiotic relationship. And it’s sometimes very difficult for secular media to see Christians as a victim. They identify Christians as a privileged group, a white group. Of course, in Nigeria it’s not that. And, of course, there are Muslims who are victimized by these Fulani militants and by Boko Haram in Nigeria and elsewhere. Actually, throughout sub-saharan Africa right now. It’s a very epidemic proportioned attack.

BASHAM: How about China? We know that they’re one of the most flagrant violators of religious freedom. Do you see this as having any effect on Beijing?

SHEA: Well, we do have some policies in place on what is happening with the Uighers and I think that we need to go further. I mean, the Uigher Muslim population of China has been sent by in the million or more numbers to concentration camps for reeducation whereby they are to give up their religious beliefs and practices. It’s startling that this is being carried out by a government. It’s a very dire situation for all religions now. And the Christians, again, they have recently sentenced, again, during the pandemic, one of the leading underground pastors to nine years in prison. Extremely long prison term at this point in time for China. And we need to counter that. We need to have programs that will recognize this and overcome it somehow, given the tools that they need to overcome this reindoctrination attempt by China. And I think the EO could—if there’s political will to implement it—because it elevates religious freedom to a policy priority.

BASHAM: Nina Shea directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. Again, Nina, thanks so much.

SHEA: Thank you, Megan.

(Photo/Associated Press, Photo by K.M. Chaudhry) Pakistani Christian women pray at a vandalized church near Lahore, Pakistan. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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