An innovative resolution introduced last week by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) calls on the Trump Administration to target particular countries in Central Asia and Europe that historically have been among the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.
The nations have regularly committed severe violations of religious freedom, such as torture, prolonged detention without charge, abduction, or clandestine detention. The resolution proposes sanctions on the governments, as well as on individuals such as the Turkish officials responsible for the imprisonment of American Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, and the Kremlin officials responsible for the occupation of Crimea.
An unusual but very encouraging aspect of the resolution (S.Res 539) is that it proposes the U.S. do more than impose sanctions on the violators, a tactic which alone simply has not worked. It also calls for the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, to develop an inter-agency strategy that can actually advance religious freedom in the named countries, which are Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey, and those parts of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed forces.
Importantly, the resolution calls for the strategy to “emphasize the value of adopting religious freedom as a means of enhancing economic growth and undermining religion-related violence and terrorism.” Along with the threat of sanctions, demonstrating the practical benefits of religious freedom might actually improve things on the ground. Ambassador Brownback has spoken often of these benefits. Creating an inter-agency strategy seems the next logical step.
The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy acknowledged the connection between international religious freedom and security, but did not propose or mandate a strategy to further U.S. security objectives. The Wicker-Shaheen resolution would fill that gap.
As Senator Wicker said when the resolution was introduced, “This resolution is a blueprint for action in a region where governments have often attacked religious freedom instead of protecting it. When governments take steps toward improvement, as Uzbekistan has done, we should support and bolster their efforts.”
The need for targeted religious freedom strategies was highlighted last month when the State Department released its annual report on International Religious Freedom. Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Brownback announced that the United States will convene a global summit in July 2018 of like-minded countries and civil society organizations at the first-ever “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.” The goal is to inspire coordinated actions that will advance religious freedom more effectively, thereby reducing religion-related violence and stimulating more economic growth.