ROME — The content of President Donald Trump’s new executive order to promote religious freedom overseas was greatly overshadowed by the controversy that erupted at the time of its signing June 2 — but Church leaders in the Middle East and Nigeria contacted by the Register have enthusiastically welcomed the document.
The presidential directive, which President Trump signed at the White House after a controversial visit to the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., prioritizes international religious freedom in foreign policy and overseas government aid projects, budgets $50 million a year for programs that advance religious liberty worldwide, and requires relevant State Department officials to undergo training in international religious freedom.
The executive order also aims to develop recommendations to “prioritize the appropriate use of economic tools” to advance religious liberty “in countries of particular concern.”
Explaining the significance of the executive order, Kristina Arriaga, former vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted that religious freedom “can be a sensitive issue” and so is often “set aside by U.S. diplomats in bilateral and multilateral negotiations.”
The June 2 executive order “ends that practice,” she told the Register. “Agencies can no longer leave this fundamental human right outside international boardrooms.”
Such a practice “is not only wrong,” Arriaga added, but “signals to the world that the U.S. is willing to stand by despots.”
For the first time in U.S. history, she said the secretary of state has “convened minister-level meetings” just to address religious freedom, and she urged the Church in the U.S. to also “get involved in creating an interreligious coalition to demand worldwide intervention on behalf of those who are persecuted in all these countries.”
The release of the executive order was eclipsed by controversy over Trump’s visit to the shrine after a fourth night of significant protests in Washington against the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police.
Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, noting the chaotic clearing of crowds the day before so that Trump could visit the fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church in the city, said he found it “baffling and reprehensible” that the shrine would allow itself to be “so egregiously misused and manipulated.”
In a statement, the shrine stressed that the visit had been scheduled in advance and that the president’s visit was “fitting,” given St. John Paul II’s “tireless” defense of international religious freedom and the fact that the issue receives “widespread bipartisan support.” The shrine also said it “welcomes all people to come and pray and learn about the legacy of St. John Paul II.”
The actual signing of the executive order took place elsewhere, not at the shrine, as was earlier planned.
“We welcome the recent Executive Order on Advancing Religious Freedom,” said Chaldean Archbishop Bashir Warda of Erbil, Iraq — an area that has lost hundreds of thousands of Christians since the 2003 Iraq War and the 2014-2017 invasion by the Islamic State group. “Having directly experienced persecution, crimes against humanity and genocide because of our commitment to our faith, we are deeply grateful for the efforts of the administration to maintain an international focus on this issue.”
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan told the Register he welcomed the “courage” President Trump showed in signing the order after visiting the Shrine of St. Pope John Paul II and hoped “there will be an effective follow-up” in the form of defending and preserving civil rights, creating jobs, promoting development and helping foster a true religious dialogue that they “dream of.”
In a June 5 statement, the patriarch said he also firmly hoped “effective humanitarian programs” announced in the executive order would “insure the survival of my community, as well as Christian minorities, in order to stay rooted in their ancestral homeland.”
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, a region of extensive persecution in Nigeria, said the executive order put the persecution of Christians and other religions “on the front burner” — something he viewed as a “welcome development especially in the face of the crippling secularism that is trying to push religious identity to the sidelines.”
Iraqi Syriac Catholic Bishop Yousif Habash, originally from Mosul and now at the Syriac Catholic Eparchy of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark, said the order “is certainly very positive and worthy of consideration and appreciation.” Christians do not “wait for aid from far away to survive,” he stressed, but added that if such aid comes from “goodwill,” then it “certainly benefits Christians and serves them.”
Asked about their hopes for the correct implementation of the executive order, Bishop Habash urged that it be “just and fair” because “a lot of such help doesn’t bring the appropriate results.”
He asked that a committee be created, made up of “people of integrity” and who have “real knowledge” of the Christian communities concerned. He also recommended that a “transparent and strong work plan” be developed, that nuncio-approved statistics on any given situation be prepared, and institutions be registered.
He also advised a second committee deal with “grievances and complaints” and to help those most urgently in need. Particular attention, he said, should be given to those on low incomes needing health care, surgery and medicine, as well as young people without education.
Prioritize Religious Freedom
Patriarch Younan stressed the extent of the “horrific persecution” Syriac Catholics have faced over the past decade in Iraq and Syria — something he said he and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad told Vice President Mike Pence at a recent meeting. It is a “matter of survival,” he told the Register.
“We need effective solidarity from the U.S.A.,” which “should cherish religious freedom as a gift from God.” This needs to be “shown in deeds, not only words, avoiding ‘politically correct language’” that he said has “spread within Western politics, media and even within the Church.”
In his June 5 statement, Patriarch Younan asked President Trump to “help restore peace and reconciliation” to Syria and make it a priority to lift economic sanctions affecting the innocent. “Wherever religious freedom is guaranteed, sociopolitical freedoms will sooner or later follow,” he said.
While Church leaders in Iraq and Syria previously have praised the Trump administration for giving enhanced attention to their problems since the president took office in 2017, they also have sometimes been critical of failures to fulfill American promises of assistance. Speaking to the Register in June 2018, Archbishop Warda said it was “a big disappointment” that there had been little progress up to that point in implementing a promise Vice President Pence made in October 2017 to channel U.S. assistance directly to Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East.
And speaking with the Register at the end of Hungary’s first-ever government-sponsored conference in support of persecuted Christians in October 2017, Patriarch Younan appealed to the Trump administration to deliver “something real on the ground, not just words but a vision” to help Christians in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
Bishop Kukah said while it was “too early” to speculate what could come from the executive order for Nigeria, he was “hopeful” it would hold world leaders accountable for “unacceptable violence” on the basis of religion. He deplored the lack of attention to the persecution in Nigeria, where, according to some estimates, 1,000 Christians were murdered in 2019 alone for their faith, and some 6,000 since 2015.
“Leaders often take refuge in the claims that Christians are not the only ones dying,” the bishop told the Register, but he said no other religious community has been so targeted as Christians, often singled out to demoralize and intimidate them. For this reason, he believes countries’ constitutional provisions guaranteeing these freedoms must be respected.
“Faith is, for us, the most important identity,” he said.
Bishop Habash said what is “really very painful” is that Western governments “do not want to give importance to the Christian presence in the Middle East.” But in America, he said, “the pulse of Christianity is still alive and well,” and without Christianity, the world “could be a hell that is intolerable.”
This is why, he said, “evil wills fight America’s existence, the American spirit and its optimism, because America still believes that it is a nation under God.”
He added that if the U.S. wishes to “compensate for its mistakes that caused great losses to the Christians of Iraq, there is no other way and no other solution except with the support of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria.”
“When America works for justice and peace, it could be great and more powerful,” he added. “Only here lies the secret of its power, but God forbid, if it falls, the fall will be loud.”
Bishop Kukah said he hoped the fruits of the executive order would build on the work of the Church in Nigeria to provide education and health care to citizens irrespective of their creed.
“The U.S. government has the stature to rally other countries to this cause,” he said, “and we are glad that this is happening.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.