Taken for granted by most Americans, the freedom to practice whatever religion one wants is an American value that the U.S. spends considerable effort exporting.
It begins with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which declares, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Advocating for that American value is a core objective of the U.S. government.
“I so fundamentally believe that this is one of those rights that brings forward a number of other human rights,” said Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom.
WATCH: Plugged in with Greta Van Susteren - Feb. 28, 2018
One success Brownback told VOA’s Greta Van Susteren his office has had is helping win the release of Vietnamese Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh.
“Vietnam policy is to keep religion under control,” Chinh said. “Personally, I do not accept that. I believe religion should not be influenced by the government. That’s why I was persecuted for 27 years.”
Chinese attorney’s death
Noted Chinese human rights attorney Li Baiguang attended the National Prayer Breakfast, headlined by President Donald Trump, in early February. Shortly after returning to China, Li died in an army hospital after complaining of stomach pain.
Bob Fu, founder of ChinaAid, which provides aid for Christians in China, was stunned.
“I was spending the whole week after the National Prayer Breakfast in February, February 5th though the 11th. I’m staying in the same hotel with him, and he was fine,” Fu said.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department said it was “saddened” by the sudden death off Li Baiguang. The Chinese government has yet to respond.
Brownback advocated a more direct approach.
“So, I think you have to go to the country and say, ‘This is in your best interest to be religiously free. And we now have the studies that this will reduce terrorism in your nation if you allow religious freedom,’” he said.
Brownback also said it is important to call out offenders for what has happened from the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq to what’s happening with the Rohingya in Myanmar
“I mean, this is religious cleansing. It would not be happening if these people were not Muslim,” he said of the Rohingya. “If they were Buddhists, in all likelihood, this would not be happening today.”
Diplomacy against persecution
On her program, “Plugged In with Greta Van Susteren,” Van Susteren talked to two religious leaders about using diplomacy to change persecution in other countries.
“Where is the line when we try to use diplomacy to try to change, like, China’s persecution or other nations’ persecution? Where do you draw that line?” Van Susteren said.
“We have to protect the religious rights, religious freedoms, of our citizens, and we have to make sure that government is not subject to undue influence by religious communities,” said Rabbi Jack Moline of the Interfaith Alliance.
“America is the first modern nation to actually embody the idea of religious freedom,” said Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of American University. “So, we have to make it a success. Otherwise, as the rabbi says, other countries are going to say you haven’t been able to live up to it yourself, how are you telling us to behave?”