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Trump puts global religious freedom in the political fray

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Even as President Donald Trump sharply challenged the faith of his political opponents this week, he was drawing new attention to a religious issue that he’s staked repeated claim to: the global freedom to worship.

The day after Trump touted his support for domestic religious liberty in his State of the Union address, the State Department rolled out a list of 26 nations that have joined the International Religious Freedom Alliance. Trump lauded the alliance in Thursday remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, vowing that his administration is “standing up for persecuted Christians and religious minorities all around the world, like nobody has ever done.”

But the president’s elevation of global religious freedom while he politicizes the topic at home -- Trump asserted last month that he had ended a government “war on religion” -- raises questions about whether a long-standing bipartisan priority can stay that way amid the white-hot politics of an election year. Indeed, religious progressives who have raised their voices to counter Trump’s appeals to his evangelical base challenged his administration’s focus on international religious freedom as advancing a restrictive definition of the term.

Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the progressive NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, told reporters Thursday that when she first heard of the administration's new international alliance, “I thought the idea was nations having difficulty providing for religious freedom were joining together to try to improve.”

Among the alliance members identified as having ongoing religious freedom issues by the State Department’s 2018 annual report are Hungary, led by a far-right government, and Austria.

That member nations are being held up as “models for religious freedom,” Campbell added, is “shocking, and a continuation of this very narrow perspective of what religious freedom is” that the administration has put forth.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, addressing representatives from the member nations in Washington on Wednesday night, lauded them as “an alliance of like-minded partners who treasure and fight for international religious freedom for every human being.”

While Trump took flak from some on the left for leading with Christian references in his invocations of religious freedom this week, Pompeo singled out persecuted minority populations that include the Yazidi sect in Iraq and the Rohingya Muslim population in Myanmar.

Andrew Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati who studies religion and politics, observed that the administration is juggling dual interests in religious freedom, as both a global priority that can transcend partisanship and a domestic priority that is politically valuable.

Lewis added that “progress they’ve made on religious freedom has been undermined by other places where they’ve not been as supportive.” He pointed to the administration’s slashing of the nation’s refugee admissions cap, a move that limited resettlement options for some religious minorities who face persecution at home.

Supporters of the administration’s work on international religious freedom, which is also led at State by ambassador-at-large Sam Brownback, lauded the alliance as a substantive sign that religious freedom is becoming a higher global priority.

“We’re very confident at this point that the priority is going to be focused on religious freedom as a broad human rights issue,” said Nathan Wineinger, policy director at the Christian human rights advocacy group 21Wilberforce. “That includes people who have theistic beliefs and people who have nontheistic beliefs.”

Kristina Arriaga, a former GOP appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted that “no country has a perfect record when it comes to religious freedom, including our own country,” pointing to the recent rise in domestic incidents of anti-Semitism.

Given that reality, Arriaga added, the agreement of so many nations “to aspire higher is a good thing in and of itself.”

Others among the list of founding members include: Brazil, Colombia, Gambia, Georgia, Israel, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Religious liberty has been politically polarizing domestically, often pitting pro-Trump conservative evangelicals against progressives who warn that the issue is used as a shield for discrimination. But global freedom to worship tends to be a more unifying goal -- before Trump questioned her faith on Thursday in a charged clash over his impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the stage at the prayer breakfast to honor those of multiple faiths who are persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Whether the “human rights awareness” of religious freedom from some elements of the administration can “coexist in a way that's productive” with the domestic politics of the issue “remains to be seen,” said Lewis, the University of Cincinnati professor.

Critics who chided Trump's record on religious freedom this week also pointed to his administration's plans to expand a travel ban that affected five majority-Muslim nations. One Muslim supporter of the administration's work on international religious freedom acknowledged that the travel restrictions had complicated the path to communicating its successes in helping persecuted people of faith.

Amjad Khan, a spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, said that there could be “improvement on hearing and responding to the American Muslim community" on that front.

“But I think, as it pertains to international religious freedom, even when the spotlight is not turned on … the administration has been really solid,” he said.

A senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday that nations in the alliance “generally have good records” on religious freedom. Member nations would not take formal votes, the official added, instead working together on a voluntary basis to prioritize action on religious freedom issues.

The official described the administration’s travel ban as a “separate issue” from its work on religious freedom.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.