President Biden Needs to Name an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

COMMENTARY: President Trump’s pick, Sam Brownback, was relentless in observing and condemning religious persecution while encouraging world leaders to take steps in advancing religious freedom.

Members of the Muslim Uyghur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate on Dec. 30, 2020, in Istanbul, to ask for news of their relatives and to express their concern after China announced the ratification of an extradition treaty with Turkey.
Members of the Muslim Uyghur minority hold placards as they demonstrate in front of the Chinese consulate on Dec. 30, 2020, in Istanbul, to ask for news of their relatives and to express their concern after China announced the ratification of an extradition treaty with Turkey. (photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP/Getty)

The early days of Joe Biden’s presidency have seen a whirlwind of activity, most of which unsurprisingly carries on where the Obama administration left off. It’s significant, then, that the Biden administration endorsed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration that China has committed genocide in its horrific treatment of the Uyghurs and other religious minorities. 

Is this a one-off or is the White House serious about advancing the cause of international religious freedom? 

In his last day on the job, Pompeo declared that China’s policies on Muslims and ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang region constitute a “genocide.” 

“I have determined that since at least March 2017, the People’s Republic of China, under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party, has committed crimes against humanity against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other members of ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang,” he said.  

Genocide declarations are not thrown around lightly. The U.S. did not declare as genocide the mass killings in Rwanda in 1994 until much later. 

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell designated the situation in Sudan’s western Darfur region a genocide in 2004. And, most recently, former Secretary of State John Kerry applied the term to the Islamic State’s repression and massacres of Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq in 2016. 

What happened in Rwanda, Sudan and the Middle East was frightening. So, too, is what is happening now. China’s status as a geopolitical great power, or its astonishing economic achievements, does not obscure the simple and disgusting barbarity of its treatment of more than 1 million people belonging to Uyghur and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups.

The Uyghurs have been herded into a vast network of concentration camps. Once there, they have been subjected to involuntary birth control and forced labor to produce a multitude of products imported to the U.S., including popular brand-name clothing and electronic goods such as cameras and computer monitors. 

“We are witnessing the systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs by the Chinese party-state,” remarked Pompeo chillingly.

President Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, agrees with Pompeo’s assessment. 

“My judgment remains that genocide was committed against — against the Uyghurs and that — that hasn’t changed,” he recounted in a recent press conference. President Biden, when campaigning in August, called the Chinese government’s actions genocide. He added that he “stands against it in the strongest terms.” 

What will “standing against” such atrocious religious and ethnic persecution look like for the Biden administration?  

A good place to start would be the immediate nomination and confirmation of someone with a demonstrated record of advancing religious liberty as ambassador-at-large for international freedom among the first wave of non-cabinet presidential appointments. 

In 1998, Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), establishing the Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department, led by an international religious freedom ambassador-at-large. In December 2016, the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act amended the 1998 law to require that the IRF ambassador report directly to the secretary of state. This was important because whom you report to in Washington, D.C., matters a lot. Reporting to the secretary of state hugely increases the chance of getting things done.

Historically, our diplomats failed to appreciate that religious freedom has a stabilizing effect on democracy, energizes civil society and spurs on economic growth and development. The just-departed ambassador-at-large, Sam Brownback, did grasp this point. Highly regarded for his international expertise after years in the Senate, he was relentless in observing and condemning religious persecution and encouraged world leaders to take steps to advance religious freedom. 

In addition to advocating for a host of persecuted people across the globe, Brownback emphasized the religious dimension to the daily assaults on human rights in China. (He was part of a select group of U.S. politicians singled out for sanctions by the communist regime for doing so.) 

Brownback also forged alliances with other nation states by setting up an annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. At the second ministerial in July 2019, more than 106 countries and more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders participated. Delay in the appointment of his successor runs the risk of destroying this momentum. It is, literally, dangerous for persecuted people. 

Should President Biden drag his heels in naming Brownback’s replacement or appoint someone without a proven commitment to the cause of religious freedom, that will send an appalling message not just to China’s sinister reeducation specialists, but also to regimes all over the developing world that are turning their backs on religious pluralism. 

The chief victims of this trend are Christians. The statistics are unambiguous on this point: They make up perhaps 80% of victims of religious persecution. 

Open Doors International recently reported that more than 340 million Christians worldwide experienced a high level of persecution and discrimination in 2020. The group notes that in the period between Oct. 1, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020, there was a 60% increase in the number of Christians killed because of their faith (4,761 in total, an average of 13 every day). 

Africa is one of the deadliest continents for Christians. Nigeria stands out as the locus of the worst slaughter. 

In December 2020, the Department of State designated Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” for the first time ever due to “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” More than 12,000 Christians in Nigeria have been killed in Islamist attacks since June 2015. 

During a hearing held in early December by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Bishop William Avenya of Goboko, Nigeria, testified. 

“It is depressing that our Middle Belt region has truly become a vale of tears, a region where mass burials are very common,” said Bishop Avenya. “Since the consistent attacks began some five years ago, there has hardly been a single day without killing in one part of the region or the other.” 

Let that sink in. Hardly a single day. 

Promptly naming a strong ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom will show that America’s commitment to the cause of advancing international religious freedom is unwavering. Failing to do so, by contrast, could permit the scourge of religious persecution we see today to become a global plague afflicting the world for years to come.