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Four Ways President Trump Can Make Religious Freedom Great Again at the UN

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Editor's Note: This piece was co-authored by Family Research Council's Arielle Del Turco.

This September, President Trump will once again address world leaders at the annual United Nations General Assembly. The president has previously used the opportunity to call out foreign heads of state for human rights abuses, although not explicitly on religious freedom. 


Under Trump’s leadership, the United States has already distinguished itself as a global leader on this issue, hosting unprecedented events like the first and second annual gatherings of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. President Trump can continue to carve out a special leadership role on this distinctively American issue by giving the leaders gathered at the UN next month a wake-up call on the current worldwide crisis of religious freedom. Here are four ways he can do so.

1)     Encourage Countries to Train Diplomats on Religious Freedom

Religious freedomexperts have found U.S. diplomats to be “ill-equipped” to discuss and promote religious freedom. Yet diplomats are on the front line of U.S. foreign policy, and it is imperative that they articulate and advance America’s position on religious freedom. To address this, the State Department introduced mandatory training on international religious freedom for Foreign Service Officers this year, teaching them how to identify religious discrimination and cooperate with faith leaders from diverse communities.

President Trump should urge other governments to also train their diplomats to promote religious freedom as articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Oppressive governments are more likely to reform if they feel external pressure.

2)     Condemn the Use of Counter-Terrorism to Disguise Religious Oppression


In an attempt to skirt international controversy, some governments try to pass off their blatant religious freedom violations as “counter-terrorism measures.” Perhaps the most well-known example is Andrew Brunson, an American pastor ministering in Turkey, who wascharged with espionage and aiding terrorism despite no evidence to prove Brunson had any illegal connection to terrorists. He was eventually released following a 24-month detention in Turkey after the U.S.sanctioned two Turkish officials and took other measures to secure the pastor’s release. Turkey isn’t the only country to disguise their arbitrary harassment and imprisonment of religious minorities as “national security” or “counter-terrorism measures;” China, Iran, and other countries do the same.

Legitimate national security programs are important, but governments often abuse national security terminology topunish those who convert to another religion or proselytize even though these acts pose no inherent security risk. At the U.N., President Trump should condemn all efforts to disguise the suppression of freedom of religion and the arbitrary imprisonment of religious minorities as national security or counter-terrorism measures. 

3)     Condemn the Suppression of Religious Freedom Through Technology

Governments increasingly use technology to suppress or punish religious beliefs. In an effort to crack down on Uyghur Muslims, China has invested billions of dollarsto turn its Xinjiang province into a dystopian society in which the government employs facial recognition technology and advanced surveillance equipment to track the behavior of this ethnic and religious minority. Through the surveillance program, the government selects Uyghurs forre-education internment camps, where they are indoctrinated with Chinese Communist Party propaganda. But using this technology in Xinjiang isn’t enough for China; they are spreading it abroad. Chinese firms have sold their high-tech surveillance toolsto at least 18 countries, including Venezuela, Pakistan, and Rwanda. These intelligence monitoring systems are subject to abuse by the governments that utilize them. And China’s buyers don’t have the greatest track records.


In response, the U.S. needs to articulate its support for freedom of expression – including religious expression – and condemn the use of technology to track and control the daily lives of religious minorities. The U.S. should also pressure other countries to refrain from purchasing surveillance systems from China and others.

4)     Encourage the Protection of Places of Worship

Around the world, places of worship (including synagogues, churches, mosques, and those of other faiths) areunder attack. Earlier this year, aseries of bombs targeted Sri Lankan churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing over 290 people and injuring hundreds more, to international horror. The tragic reality is that attacks on places of worship are not altogether uncommon.

Places of worship are sacred spaces, allowing for the expression of deeply held religious beliefs. We must ensure they are safe places, for all worshippers, worldwide. The U.S. should call upon all government officials to condemn such attacks (regardless of the targeted faith community), and work with religious communities to protect places of worship. 

The U.S. can and should lead the world in advancing religious freedom. The consequences of ignoring the victims of religious oppression are far too grave. If President Trump highlights these areas in his UN speech later this month, it would boost the United States in its role as a world leader on religious freedom.


Travis Weber is the Family Research Council’s Vice President for Policy and Government Affairs, and Arielle Del Turco is a member of the Family Research Council’s policy department.

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