ROME – U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said Friday that the Vatican’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops ought to be made public so that it can be evaluated.
“It certainly seems to me that it’s in everybody’s interest for the agreement to be made public so that people can appraise it and it can be subject to the light of day and people understand what the parameters of it are,” Brownback told journalists via conference call July 12.
The deal, reached last September, is believed to allow both Chinese officials and the pope to have a say on which bishops are named. However, the details of the agreement have not been made public, a fact that has been widely criticized.
During a visit to Hong Kong in March, Brownback said the deal had set a poor precedent for government interference with other religious communities, including Tibetan Buddhism and other Christian denominations.
Answering a question posed by Crux on Friday’s call, Brownback said that while he can’t say religious persecution in China has been made worse because of the deal, “more aggressive actions have happened towards virtually every faith in China” since the Chinese Communist Party was given power over the regulation of religion in 2017.
Referring to the Vatican’s agreement with China, Brownback said “I don’t know that it’s made it worse, but certainly I believe it true that the agreement should be made public.”
He said the Chinese government was not invited to participate in the ministerial, explaining that, “We invited nations to this that are like-minded, that support religious freedom or are aspirational to engage for more religious freedom in their nation.”
“Unfortunately China has a bad record,” he said, citing human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang province, home to many ethnic and religious minorities, government interference with Tibetan Buddhism, and the persecution of China’s Christian population, including the so-called “underground” Catholic community, who are loyal to Rome but not registered with the Chinese government.
“For those reasons the Chinese government will not be invited,” he said. Representatives from Iran and from China’s nearby neighbor North Korea are also missing from the guest list.
On Iran, Brownback criticized the nation for religious freedom violations, saying “Iran has one of the worst records in the world” as far as religious persecution and harassment.
“Iran has shown no interest whatsoever in being an openly religiously free country,” he said, voicing hope that they would step up efforts to ensure religious freedom. However, this is “not the indication of the Iranian government whatsoever,” he said.
The U.S. State Department’s second religious freedom “ministerial” will take place July 15-18 in Washington.
Last year’s event was the largest ever global meeting on religious liberty, prompted in large part due to the major uptick in religious persecution worldwide.
During this year’s event, the first two days will be dedicated to religious leaders and civil society activists discussing current religious freedom issues, while the second day will give space for the representatives of the 115 governments invited to discuss what actions ought to be taken on the religious freedom front throughout the course of the year.
Over 20 people from different religious backgrounds will be present who have experienced persecution due to their faith, including an initial panel consisting of a Jewish rabbi representing the community where the April 27 San Diego synagogue shooting took place; a Christian working with victims of the deadly Easter bombings in Sri Lanka; and a Muslim who was part of the March 15 mosque attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Among the more recognizable guests will be Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was kidnapped by ISIS in Iraq in 2014 and held for three months, and American Evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey in 2016 following a failed coup d’état and held for two years.
Taking place at the State Department, the ministerial will begin July 15 with a meeting with victims of persecution at the Holocaust museum, and it will conclude July 18 with a large reception at the African American museum.
There will be a youth track and some 80 sidebar events sponsored by activist groups. Due to the large number of participants, a second location for the event has been set up at George Washington University.
“Our effort is to stir action,” Brownback said. “We want to see a global, grassroots movement around religious freedom. We want to get the various faiths to bind together and to stand for each other’s freedom of religion,” because “every religion that is a majority is a minority somewhere else.”
He insisted that the goal is not to reach a “common theology,” saying, “there is no common theology in this discussion.” Rather, the goal is to work toward “a common human right, and that human right is that everyone is entitled to be able to practice their faith peacefully and without fear.”
In the follow up to the ministerial, Brownback said he hopes to have localized religious freedom “roundtables” evaluating the status of religious freedom around the world, in both regional and specific contexts.
He said concrete actions will be taken, such as the reprinting of certain textbooks “so minorities aren’t denigrated.”
Announcements from various governments on what concrete actions they plan to take in the course of the next year will be made on the final day, Brownback said, calling the event a “major foreign policy initiative” on an issue which “has not gotten its due as far as focus around the world, particularly given the amount of persecution that’s been taking place in recent years and growing.”
“We want to push back on that and start a movement pushing the other way,” he said, adding, “we really hope this is the launch of that global grassroots movement.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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