The greatest threat to the United States and to world peace during the administration of President Donald Trump will be the enormous rise of persecution of Christians and religious minorities. In America we call it the “first freedom,” but in a growing number of countries individuals are not permitted to decide for themselves what their faith will be, or even to choose not to believe.
And the clock is ticking.
Religious intolerance was the root cause of nearly every major crisis of the Obama administration. The president steadfastly refused to admit its role in the Islamic State caliphate and other humanitarian crises for fear of stoking religious extremists, choosing instead to attribute these to tribal or criminal elements. But the truth cannot be denied. Religious intolerance is real and spreading at an alarming rate.
In January Open Doors released the 2017 World Watch List. We discovered that a shocking 1 out of every 12 Christians around the world today experiences high levels of persecution because of their faith.
Global persecution has risen to another all time high as countries in South and Southeast Asia are now as volatile as the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Even here in the Americas, 23 Christian leaders were killed in Mexico specifically because of their faith.
It is a dim picture of how the killing of Christians has spread and become more geographically dispersed hitting every continent.
President Trump rightly recognizes the incredible rise in Christian persecution, and to some, his executive order to ban travel on immigrants and refugees from many Muslim-majority countries may seem like an appropriate action. However, it's likely to be interpreted as religious criteria to enter America – which could exacerbate the already severe worldwide trend of religious persecution.
It has the potential to result in serious backlash to Christians in countries plagued by Islamic extremism, countries where Open Doors is at work.
Oddly, it leaves out key perpetrators of persecution such as Saudi Arabia and India. Six out of the seven countries included in the recent travel ban are in the top 10 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. The seventh country, Libya, is rated No. 11. There's time to clarify and adjust this policy but it seems likely to cause more problems than it solves in the short run.
The Obama administration left the critical position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department vacant for up to 27 months. While this position sat unfilled, the expansion of the Islamic State took place, culminating in the fall of Mosul in June of 2014. At this critical time in history, the administration seemed to show little interest in investigating and advocating for the religious liberty of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities.
Now this crucial position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom is about to be vacant once again. Prior to the election, I met with Trump officials as part of a group of religious liberty experts. At this time we were assured that they considered the lack of action by the Obama administration an egregious oversight and promised to take swift action if elected.
My hope is that the Trump administration will heed the advice we have provided.
During the president's first 100 days, we are asking the Trump administration to quickly appoint or re-appoint an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Today more than ever, this position is crucial to informing U.S. policy on this important issue.
We are also urging the Trump administration to re-appoint or appoint a Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in Near East and South and Central Asia. Those working within the Office for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. State Department have worked tirelessly to advocate for religious minorities around the world who face violence and impoverished conditions. For either of these key positions to be left vacant would be an enormous detriment and send a message to those who persecute that the United States does not care or consider religious freedom to be a priority.
We also are encouraging the president and Secretary of State to make a public statement announcing that international religious freedom policy is vital to U.S. interests in the world, including national security, and detail how it will be expanded under the new administration. Taking a strong public stance on this will send a clear message that the Trump administration will not tolerate any deviation from valuing every person’s religious freedom and right.
I am not alone in these requests. In a poll recently conducted by Open Doors, we discovered that 60 percent of all Americans said it is important for the Trump administration to take action on the persecution of Christians within the first 100 days in office.
Our friends in Congress agree with us. Speaking at the release of the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) shared that we are in a time when religious persecution is at its worst. He urged the United States to do more for those suffering.
Recently, Congressman Smith sponsored the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which elevates the issue of freedom of religion within U.S. foreign policy.
Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) also spoke on the gravity of the situation, stating that this is one of those issues that really is about life and death. Where human and religious rights are being violated, countries are most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization.
As we have already seen in the first two weeks of Trump’s administration, international religious freedom is clearly the dominant issue at the center of every major humanitarian crisis on the globe today.
The president must examine and consider the root causes of religious persecution throughout the world and seek to address the spread of violent persecution.
It will be a failure of the Trump administration if it does not address religious intolerance by integrating it into the core of U.S. foreign policy and aid the more than 215 million Christians around the world who face extreme persecution every day.
This is the issue the Trump administration must tackle for the administration to be successful.
I hope they make it a top priority.