Pence: U.S. will not ignore persecuted Christians
The vice president says protecting international religious freedom is a top priority
WASHINGTON—Vice President Mike Pence worked to reassure religious freedom advocates Thursday that persecuted Christians around the world have the support of the Trump administration.
“The Bible tells us all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” Pence said in a keynote address at the first-ever World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington. “The reality is across the wider world the Christian faith is under siege. Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ.”
Pence addressed an audience of hopeful religious liberty advocates ready to see the Trump administration fulfill its promises to take substantive action for persecuted religious minorities around the world.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, led by Franklin Graham, hosted the summit to raise awareness of religious persecution around the world and stand in solidarity with the persecuted church.
More than 600 Christian delegates from 130 countries and territories attended the summit.
According to Open Doors USA’s 2017 World Watch List, Christians are now one of the most persecuted groups in the world. More than 1,200 Christians died defending their faith in 2016, and hundreds of millions live in countries where they can’t fully live out their beliefs.
“What I appreciate so much about our vice president is his strong faith in God and his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God,” Graham said while introducing Pence.
Pence assured the audience he and the president have not forgotten about persecuted Christians and said the administration is ready to follow through with tangible action.
The vice president pointed to Trump’s executive order last week to help promote domestic religious freedom and the president’s commitment to confronting radical Islamic terrorists who target Christians and other minority faiths abroad.
But there’s still much work needed, religious freedom advocates told me after hearing Pence’s address.
Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, said she’s still waiting for Trump to refocus his foreign policy to address human rights abuses.
“Obviously, Vice President Mike Pence is personally a man of great faith, he feels this in his heart, but with an administration there sometimes can seem to be a focus on deals and getting the deals done in a very transactional approach to our foreign policy,” Swett said. “But I think it’s reassuring to have the vice president come and speak clearly from a position of values and faith and conviction and express solidarity.”
President Donald Trump speaks often on human rights abuses by ISIS, but, so far, he has not prioritized deploying aid to victims or restructuring the State Department to help foster more international religious freedom.
Former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., now the senior fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, told me the State Department is still grossly understaffed, pointing out Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn’t have a deputy secretary yet.
“You can’t fill all these empty positions until you have a deputy because the deputy runs the building,” Wolf said.
Trump’s first budget blueprint asked for a $10 billion cut to the State Department, trimming down the number of staff and the amount of annual foreign aid. But Wolf told me he believes at the end of the day Congress will make sure the State Department has the funding it needs.
Wolf said one of Trump’s first actions should be appointing a special envoy to Nigeria, where Boko Haram continues to slaughter more Christians than any other group in the world.
Many Christian leaders praised a law President Barack Obama signed at the end of last year that tasked the State Department with creating lists of prisoners of conscience in each country. It also implemented mandatory training for Foreign Service officers so they can better advocate for religious freedom in their respective places of work. But Wolf told me none of that work has begun since the State Department has so few staff members in place.
Pence didn’t mention any the challenges facing the new administration but gave broad assurance that Trump will stand with Christians abroad.
“But I’d still say Pence’s speech was very powerful,” Wolf said. “What it does is put the administration boldly on record for these issues.”
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