President Donald Trump highlighted his efforts to promote religious freedom at home and abroad during an unusually raucous appearance before the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday.
“To protect faith communities, I have taken historic action to defend religious liberty, including the constitutional right to pray in public schools,” he told the crowd of 3,000 faith leaders who were primarily Christians.
Trump was referring to the federal guidance announced Jan. 16 that public schools must certify they allow students to engage in voluntary prayers. He also reminded the crowd about his promise to end the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
“Today, we proudly proclaim that faith is alive and well and thriving in America. And we’re going to keep it that way,” he said.
Both parties host event
Founded in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower, the prayer breakfast is hosted by lawmakers of both parties and is meant to promote unity and stress the importance of prayer and faith.
Trump — who was acquitted by the Senate of two impeachment charges on Wednesday — vented against Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the only Senate Republican to vote for conviction on one of the charges, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the effort in the House to impeach the president.
Without specifically naming him, Trump said of Romney, a Mormon, "I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong."
As for Pelosi, who once said that she prays for Trump, the president commented, "Nor do I like people who say, 'I pray for you,' when they know that that's not so. So many people have been hurt, and we can't let that go."
The co-sponsors of the breakfast, Rep. John Moolenaar, a Republican from Michigan, and Rep. Thomas Suozzi, a New York Democrat, announced the theme of this year’s breakfast as "religious persecution." Trump also expressed his resolve to fight against religious persecutions around the world.
“We are standing up for persecuted Christians and religious minorities all around the world like nobody has ever done. ... Yesterday, our administration launched the International Freedom Alliance, the first-ever alliance devoted to promoting religious liberty,” he said.
On the eve of the National Prayer Breakfast, the Trump administration launched the IRF Alliance, which the State Department described as “the first time in history an international coalition has come together at a national leadership level to push the issue of religious freedom forward around the world.”
Plans to start the IRF Alliance was first mentioned by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a religious freedom ministerial in Washington last July and then announced by Trump at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
Some 27 countries joined the alliance, including Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Britain, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, The Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Togo, Ukraine and the U.S.
The alliance members will focus on combating blasphemy laws, the use of technology in religious oppression, and persecuting people who convert to another religion. They are also considering the possibilities of using sanctions to punish the religious persecutors.
Rights groups welcome attention
Religious and human rights groups are welcoming the move as focusing global attention on religious freedom.
“This initiative highlights the growing restrictions on individual freedom to practice the faith of one’s choosing, or to not have faith. The alliance can help show societies how to create systems and practices that allow people freedom of conscience,” David Curry told VOA. Curry is the CEO of Open Doors USA, a prominent Christian persecution watchdog.
Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, explained the IRF Alliance is the result of years of international consultations.
“There could be a misperception that this is the U.S. pushing religious freedom down the throats of other countries, but this is not the case. This is an initiative from the International Religious Freedom Roundtable that existed for years,” King said. He added that the alliance is an important tool with the potential to "move the needle" and will work best as part of a broader effort that involves "carrots and sticks."
However, there are concerns over the makeup of the IRF Alliance, which includes members that have questionable human rights records.
“Bulgaria and some others have reprehensible records on human rights and religious freedom,” King noted.
Critics say the Trump administration’s expanded travel ban announced last week also undermines U.S. efforts in promoting religious freedom.
“The main obstacle to the U.S. role in this alliance is simply that the administration of President Donald Trump has implemented the tragic travel ban that has effected majority Muslim countries, in addition to new countries such as Myanmar," said Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International.
"So, how can the U.S. be taken seriously when Rohyinga Muslims from Myanmar, or Sudanese Christians, or other persecuted groups are unable to enter the U.S. due to this ban?”