“Too often people in power preach diversity, while shunning or silencing the faithful,” Trump said. “True tolerance means respecting the rights of all people to express their deeply held religious beliefs.”
While Trump did not specifically call out individual nations, Vice President Pence -- who spoke before the president -- criticized several countries for attacks on religious freedom, including China's persecution of ethnic Uyghur Muslims, Venezuela's contested leader Nicolás Maduro's anti-Semitic rhetoric and Iran's oppression of Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims.
Trump -- who was joined on stage by Pence, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other world leaders -- also announced that his administration was allocating an additional $25 million to protect religious freedom as well as religious sites and relics, and launching an initiative with business leaders to protect religious freedom in the workplace.
“This institution will engage the private sector to protect people of all faiths in the workplace,” he said.
Trump has made religious freedom one of the hallmarks of his administration and his push for greater protections to religious groups helped him win the evangelical Christian vote – and ultimately the White House – in 2016.
Pastors praised Trump's attention to the issue Monday.
During his speech on Monday, the president touted his administration’s work in securing the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey for over two years. Brunson was in attendance on Monday at the event.
The president, however, has also faced accusations of hypocrisy on the religious freedom issue, regarding policies toward Muslims. Trump was roundly criticized for an executive order he signed just days after taking office in 2017 that banned entry into the United States for 90 days of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries, banned the entry of all refugees for 120 days, and indefinitely banned the entry of all Syrian refugees.
The so-called “Muslim ban” faced numerous legal challenges and a version of it was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018 after a mechanism was added for nationals from the banned countries to enter the U.S. by obtaining a waiver.
“The Proclamation is expressly premised on legitimate purposes: preventing entry of nationals who cannot be adequately vetted and inducing other nations to improve their practices,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “The text says nothing about religion.”
The president’s speech on religious freedom this week also drew controversy when it was reported that he was skipping a U.N. event on climate change to make his speech.
Trump, however, did make a brief stop at the U.N. Climate Action Summit on Monday, where he sat next to Vice President Pence as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on stage and stayed through German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech. Overall, it was reported by The Hill that Trump spent 10 to 15 minutes at the climate change event.