SALT LAKE CITY — The State Department succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of government and religious leaders for three days this week in a first-of-its-kind religious freedom gathering. But that's just the beginning of addressing religious persecution around the globe, participants said.
"There are tremendous threats to religious freedom coming in the future," said Emilie Kao, who directs the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. "Solidarity is really important."
However, unity will be unsustainable if members of the Trump administration continue to praise authoritarian regimes or anti-Muslim activists, some observers said. Moving forward, government leaders will need to show that they understand what it means to guarantee religious freedom for all.
"It makes it hard to take them seriously when they both undermine religious freedom here at home and when they are ignoring so many other disastrous human-rights abuses," said Michael Fuchs, a former deputy secretary of state, to Politico.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already announced plans to turn the recent gathering into an annual event. Here are some additional takeaways from the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom:
1. The Trump administration is taking religious freedom activism to a new level.
The ministerial consisted of three days of official events and dozens of side events, which were attended by survivors of religious violence, clergy members, government officials, diplomats and leaders of social service organizations. Speakers highlighted major threats to religious freedom, shared success stories and created goals to guide future work.
What impressed some participants is that top U.S. officials seemed deeply invested in the success of the gathering.
"At every event, there were senior U.S. government leaders and State Department officials," said Brian Grim, president of the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation.
Grim described attending a discussion led by Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and John Sullivan, who serves as deputy secretary of state under Pompeo. The two men offered some comments and then turned over the microphone to the audience for comments, questions and recommendations.
"We had the number two guy in the State Department listening and taking notes on what people are seeing," said Grim, who has led and attended religious freedom conferences around the world.
Vice President Mike Pence, Ambassador Nikki Haley and Mick Mulvaney, who directs the Office of Management and Budget, also spoke at ministerial events.
Kao, who worked at the State Department during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said it was exciting to see top officials recognize the importance of religious freedom protections.
"This summit certainly elevated (religious freedom) to a higher level than it's been elevated before," she said.
By attending ministerial events, U.S. government leaders were able to meet face-to-face people who can help them design more effective policies and programs, Grim said, noting that these conversations were empowering for advocates and researchers like himself.
"This was perhaps the first time I was able to make the case of the economic benefits of religious freedom directly with high-level State Department leaders," he said.
2. The diverse guest list led to new connections that could save lives.
At an event like the ministerial, the guest list is more important than the schedule, participants said. Casual chats in the hallway or over lunch can lead to powerful future partnerships.
"I think the networking that happens at these events can build crucial unity," Kao said.
State Department officials invited dozens of international leaders. They also encouraged representatives of various faith groups and social service organizations to come, seeking a good mix of public and private actors.
"We wanted to include everyone of every faith or no faith at all," Brownback said during his opening remarks, according to Religion News Service. "Religious freedom really, truly is for everyone."
In the end, around 80 countries were represented at the event. And there were leaders from almost every religion you could think of, Grim said.
"The highlight has been how diverse the participants are. They've come from every faith and from Muslim-majority countries, Buddhist-majority countries and Orthodox Christian countries," he said.
Not every attendee came from a group or country that's known for religious freedom activism. Sam Smith, a staff reporter at The Christian Post, observed on Twitter that there were participants from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Bahrain, countries which have been criticized by the State Department and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for human rights violations.
The diverse crowd could share personal experiences and compare notes on how to overcome obstacles. Tina Ramirez, who leads Hardwired Global, which provides education on religious tolerance in the Middle East and North Africa, said the ministerial will help energize her ongoing projects.
"The ministerial was a great opportunity for organizations that have been plowing the hard soil of religious oppression for many years to come together and be encouraged," she said.
The unprecedented event led to meaningful brainstorming and future commitments, which could lead to life-saving changes around the world, said Andrew Bennett, a senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute.
"It was not meant to be just a chance to chat with one another. (Participants) wanted to talk action and … demonstrate that there is a desire to work in a more coordinated fashion to advance religious freedom," he said.
3. The Trump administration needs to be consistent in its approach to religious freedom.
Ten days before the start of the ministerial, news broke that Brownback had lobbied a British ambassador to the U.S. on behalf of a jailed anti-Muslim activist. The U.S. official reportedly expressed concern about the activist's treatment behind bars.
The State Department has rejected this characterization of the conversation, but damage was still done, as Jacob Lupfer noted in a column for Religion News Service.
"Brownback should comment further," he wrote. He's "done too little to distance himself from the anti-Muslim sentiments of the president who nominated him."
Although officials in the Trump administration regularly speak about the importance of religious freedom for all, their actions sometimes contradict this claim. U.S. officials have been criticized for condemning the Muslim community on Twitter and praising international leaders responsible for human rights abuses.
For example, President Donald Trump and others in the administration have condemned Turkish officials for jailing an American pastor. And yet Trump reportedly fist-bumped Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a recent NATO meeting.
At the ministerial, the Trump administration was careful to appear consistent in its approach to religious liberty, The Atlantic reported. Speakers expressed concern for all faith groups facing persecution, not just Christians.
And, as Grim noted, organizers made sure representatives of the Muslim community had a seat at the table.
"It's obvious that they did specific outreach to Muslim-majority countries and Muslim groups," he said.
But only time will tell if Trump and his team can carry this balanced approach into the future.26 comments on this story
"In any given tweet, the president is liable to lash out against allies or enemies, possibly undermining the relationships that diplomats have been working to build," The Atlantic reported.
If religious freedom activism is going to be successful, it can't be put on hold when other policy goals create potential conflicts, said Bennett, of the Religious Freedom Institute, who previously served as Canada's ambassador for religious freedom.
"If you're really dedicated to religious freedom, it has to be a priority when you approach any country with an abominable human rights record," he said.