A leading U.S. diplomat visiting Sudan said the United States is willing to work with the Sudanese government to help it achieve the conditions necessary to remove its designation as a “Country of Particular Concern” in the U.S. State Department’s annual International Religious Freedom Report.

Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan was speaking on Nov. 17 at the Al-Neelain Mosque in Omdurman, located on the western bank of the Nile River, which separates it from the national capital.

Sullivan said “supporting human rights, including religious freedom, has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of the United States’ bilateral engagement with Sudan.”

The event at the mosque included leading Muslim and Christian clergy. Sudan is 97 percent Muslim, and the small Christian community has faced harassment, especially since the predominantly Christian and animist south of the country became the independent state of South Sudan in 2011.

The State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report cited reports of government arresting, detaining, or intimidating Christian clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and attempting to close church schools, restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country, and censoring religious materials and leaders.

It is not only Christians who face harassment. Ethnic minorities have also been the victims of military campaigns against the government, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges linked to conflict in the Darfur region.

Despite the fact Sudan is designated by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Obama administration in 2015 sought to improve relations with Khartoum.

In June 2016, Sudan and the United States initiated a historic framework for improving ties between the two countries, the so-called Five Track Engagement Plan.

The plan called for Sudan to end hostilities in conflict regions such as Darfur, Kordofan, and the areas bordering South Sudan; improve access for humanitarian agencies in the country; refrain from interfering in South Sudan; cooperate with regional efforts against the Ugandan militant group, the Lord’s Resistance Army; and cooperate with the United States in counter-terrorism efforts.

Citing progress in these areas, the U.S. government last month ended some sanctions against the Sudanese government.

It achieved another victory on Nov. 16, when Sudan said it will cut all military and trade ties to North Korea, further isolating Pyongyang.

However, Sullivan said much work remains to be done, especially in the area of human rights.

He said the reason he was meeting with Muslims and Christians in a mosque was to “emphasize that the United States cares deeply about religious freedom in Sudan.

“Interfaith understanding, respect, and the protection of religious freedom and other human rights are bulwarks against extremism,” the U.S. diplomat said.

“Religious tolerance is a building block of peace and security and is the mark of responsible governance. The treatment of members of religious minorities is often the ultimate indicator of a government’s commitment to these values.”

Sullivan said by taking steps to enhance protections for religious freedom, the Sudanese government will make the entire country more stable and secure.

During their meetings with government officials, the U.S. delegation in Sudan suggested the government convene a roundtable with members of religious minority groups about property registration issues.

Sullivan said this was because officials had told the delegation registration problems have been used as the rationale for the demolitions of places of worship.

“The Government of Sudan, including the Federal States, should also immediately suspend demolitions of places of worship, including churches and mosques,” he said.

Sullivan brought up the history of the Catholic Church in the United States as an example of how a country can move from religious distrust to a more pluralistic society.

“I am the grandson of Irish-Catholic immigrants who arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the 1880s. At the time they arrived — and for many decades that followed — Catholics in the United States faced widespread prejudice based on their religion,” he said. “When John F. Kennedy — another Catholic from my home state — ran for president of the United States in 1960, he even had to give a prominent speech to reassure the nation that his faith was compatible with the duties of the office of president.”

Sullivan said recalling such history “seems quaint” today, but added it took many decades – “it was not easy” – to reach the point where it is “nearly unthinkable” that one’s status as a Catholic in the United States would serve as a disadvantage to a person’s ambitions for life.

“The American experience in this regard underscores that respect for the human dignity of every person — regardless of religious belief or origin — is a key component of not only protecting human rights, but also fostering a society that can flourish, build upon each other’s strengths, and move forward together,” he said.

Sullivan concluded by saying he was “deeply encouraged” by his meetings with Sudanese government and civil society representatives, and said the religious leaders he met were a “deep source of inspiration.

“Indeed, there are challenges that lie ahead, but we should all have reason for hope and optimism about the growing engagement between our two countries,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has promised that the protection and promotion of religious freedom is a foreign policy priority for his administration.

This article incorporates material from the Associated Press.