On July 26 Vice President Michael (“Mike”) Pence addressed the first “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” in Washington D.C. Pence opened his remarks by asserting that “religious freedom is a top priority of this administration,” that this “most fundamental of freedoms . . . is in the interest of the peace and security of the world.” His subsequent list of abuses of that freedom around the world was remarkable for its sins of omission.
In Nicaragua, Pence said, the government of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church. For decades, he went on, Tibetan Buddhists and Uyghur Muslims have been brutally repressed by the Chinese government. According to Pence, North Korea’s “persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth.” In Russia, he claimed, more than 170,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses face persecution. In Iran—“the leading state sponsor of terror,” according to Pence—“Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, and other minority religious groups are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority.” In Europe, Pence warned, “attacks on Jews, even on aging Holocaust survivors, are growing at an alarming rate.” He singled out Britain, France and Germany as particularly problematic. His list also included the Islamic State: “ISIS has shown a savagery unseen in the Middle East since the Middle Ages.”
Pence announced a new U.S. initiative to “support the most vulnerable communities” in the Middle East and “embolden civil society to help stop violence in the future.” He concluded his address by pledging that “America will always stand for religious freedom, and we will always speak out boldly wherever and whenever it’s threatened.”
“Wherever”? “Whenever”? It is remarkable that Pence did not mention some of the worst religious freedom violators in the world, most notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As I noted in these pages three years ago, while the Saudis continue to build mosques all over the world, hundreds of thousands of Christians—among the millions of foreign workers from Asia, Europe and America—must worship in secret, risking arrest, lashing or deportation for public display of their beliefs. The Saudi religious police, known as the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, continues to routinely intimidate, abuse, and detain citizens and foreigners. According to the U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, which devotes 19 pages to Saudi Arabia,
Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. [It] published a new counterterrorism law in November that replaced the 2014 counterterrorism law and criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts deemed contrary to sharia, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.
As the Report notes, since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, “for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” It also indirectly admits that this designation costs Riyadh nothing: last December “Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.” This all-important exemption may help explain Pence’s selective approach.
It is unfortunate that the Trump Administration has continued the practice of its predecessors of pandering to Saudi whims and covering up Saudi crimes. It need not have been so. In 2016 candidate Trump accurately described the Saudis as “bullies, cowards” who were “paying ISIS” and who imagined that they could “control our U.S. politicians.” He demanded the release of the missing 28 pages that had been redacted from the congressional report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hinting that the Saudi rulers had helped the hijackers: “it’s sort of nice to know who your friends are, and perhaps who your enemies are.”
Once in office, however, Trump radically revised his assessment of the Saudi connection. In May 2017, while visiting Riyadh on his first foreign tour, Trump praised his “gracious hosts” and announced the opening of a Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology there—the exact equivalent of sponsoring a center for ethno-racial pluralism in Berlin, ca. 1938. The decades-long Beltway conspiracy of silence on Saudi Arabia’s role in abetting Islamic terrorism has continued under Trump. The primary reason is his stridently anti-Iranian policy, which does not serve any rationally defined American interest.
In addition, it is noteworthy but of course unsurprising that Pence’s list of religious freedom violators did not include Israel. According to several Department of State reports on religious freedom published in recent years, Israel is not a tolerant pluralistic society. It routinely discriminates against Muslims, Reform Jews, Christians, women and Bedouins. All 137 official holy sites recognized by Israel are Jewish, ignoring and neglecting Christian and Muslim ones. More than 300,000 immigrants who are not considered Jewish under rabbinical law are not allowed to marry and divorce in Israel, or be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Let it be added that the Jewish state’s treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses does not appear to be worse than Russia’s: in both cases they are denied official recognition as a religious community; in both countries they routinely encounter local grassroots hostility; and in both countries their legal troubles often arise from their refusal to serve in the military.
What Mike Pence and other Beltway establishmentarians will never admit is that there exists a direct correlation between American “engagement” in the Middle East and the collapse of the Christian remnant there. The Christian community in Iraq was up to 1.5 million strong before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Nine-tenths of them are estimated to have left the country since that time. Their numbers were down to 500,000 in 2009, and as low as 200,000 in mid-2014. While they were still there, the U.S. forces did next to nothing to protect them. The U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi army and police have been either unable or unwilling to do so.
In Egypt the U.S. supported the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013). In Syria, against all logic, Washington remains committed to supporting the rebels, although there are no “moderates” among them. They are all Sunni fundamentalists of some hue or another, and thus committed to persecuting Christians by default, including the U.S-supported “Syrian Democratic Forces.” In addition, policies pursued by our Middle Eastern “allies” have been hugely detrimental to the Christian remnant in the region. For decades the Gulf monarchies have made massive investments in schools across the region that indoctrinate students in the ideology of Islamic supremacism. In recent years they “have played a significant role in the broader struggle for power that is affecting Christians, particularly with the flows of money from some Gulf countries to extremist and terrorist groups that have targeted Christians.” Successive U.S. administrations (including the current one) have not expressed concern over such practices, let alone acted to stop them.
So there: as a friend has noted, “religious freedom” simply turned into another club with which to beat designated bad guys and give a free pass to our favorites. With friends like Mike Pence, Middle Eastern Christians and other truly beleaguered religious minorities—such as the Serbs of Kosovo, or Christian traditionalists in the militantly secular postmodernia of North America and Western Europe—need no detractors.