ROME – In order to ensure the survival of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, America must take the reins, according to a high ranking official in the U.S. State Department.

“It is this administration’s strong belief that American leadership is crucial in securing the future of Christians in the Middle East and to protecting those who are persecuted,” Brian Hook, Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department, told Crux in an interview on July 14.

Hook is among the minds behind the fist ever “Ministerial,” or summit of ministry level officials, on religious freedom announced in late May by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The summit will take place in Washington July 24-26, and British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who handles the Vatican’s relations with states, might attend.

“The Vatican is a very important partner,” Hook said, adding that the information provided by the Church on the ground in war-torn areas like Iraq and Syria is extremely useful in assessing the situations.

He also hinted that Pope Francis’s ability to convene religious leaders from the Middle East, as he has shown in his ecumenical trip to the Southern Italian town of Bari July 7, has caught the attention of the State department. On that occasion Francis condemned the “complicit silence” of the world before the tragedy of war and religious persecution taking place in the Middle East.

Hook said that the pope’s message on behalf of the many voiceless in the area will be discussed at the ministerial.

“We have made the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East a priority,” Hook stated, underlining the examples of how the U.S. administration has acted to ensure the stability, safety and survival of religious minorities worldwide.

As the United States has increasingly retreated into an “America first” and protectionist position, many observers worldwide wonder whether it remains a reliable ally in promoting religious freedom. According to Hook, the U.S. is more committed than ever and ready to hold accountable those who persecute religious minorities.

Hook recently presented the U.S. State Department’s “12 demands to become a normal country” to Iran, after Trump decided to withdraw from the 2015 deal. The regime in Iran today, he told Crux, has made the “persecution of religious minorities a hallmark of its brutality,” adding that this will be among the topics discussed at the ministerial.

Following is Crux’s full interview with Hook.

Crux: A few weeks ago, you met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin. Can you describe the meeting and what the topics discussed were?

Brian Hook: I met with Secretary of State Parolin and we discussed the Vatican’s participation in the upcoming ministerial the State Department will be hosting on religious freedom. This is the first ever ministerial on religious freedom that the State Department has hosted and we look forward to welcoming Archbishop Gallagher from the Vatican to the ministerial.

The Vatican is a very important partner and we discussed how the prospective that they provide for religious minorities on the ground, especially in Iraq and Syria, are critical to our understanding of religious persecution and the need to expand religious freedom. We also reviewed the administration’s accomplishments on religious freedom; we’ve made it a priority. If you look at our national security strategy, it says that we will advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities. We have been engaged in that work consistently for the past year and a half.

Did this meeting build upon previous meetings the Vatican has had with the State Department or did it just focus on the ministerial?

I had met [Pope Francis] once before when I participated in President [Donald Trump’s] meeting with him after the president visited the Holy Father.

In our report on international religious freedom, we have said that where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism have a greater ability to take root. It is this administration’s strong belief that American leadership is crucial in securing the future of Christians in the Middle East and to protecting those who are persecuted.

This aligns very well with what Pope Francis said when he was recently in Bari. He highlighted, I’m quoting from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, “that Christians living in the Middle East have fallen from 40 percent before the first World War to 4 percent today.” We are very happy in the State Department to be leading an international effort to promote religious freedom around the world.

The upcoming ministerial on religious freedom is the first of its kind. What can you tell me about the event and the state of religious freedom in the world today?

We decided to convene a ministerial on religious freedom because we don’t think that enough attention has been given to the persecution of Christian minorities around the world. This will be a three-day event focused on building consensus and generating action.

We want this to be a very result-based ministerial. We have more than 60 foreign delegations confirmed and almost 300 NGOs are participating. If you look at a Pew study released in 2016, Christians faced harassment in more countries worldwide than any other religious group. In a study released in June 2018 they have seen a global rise in religious restrictions.

When you look at the number of countries where religious groups were harassed by year, you can see that Christians were harassed in 144 countries, Muslims in 142, Jews in 87 countries. In this recent Pew study, we are seeing a rise in religious restrictions. We think this ministerial is very timely to draw attention to the rise in persecutions, to help give our support to NGOs and governments who want to do more to expand religious freedom and protect religious minorities.

Let me just mention a couple of things, the State Department made the unequivocal determination that ISIS committed genocide against the Yazidis and Christians. The Vice President had led the way to ensure that emergency aid is delivered to Christians and Yazidis. USAID, which is led by our administrator Mark Green, just announced that it will be giving a $150 million contribution to specifically address the needs of vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities living in communities in Northern Iraq.

This contribution of $150 million is part of a projected $420 million dollars for a funding facility for stabilization in Iraq. We are also very pleased that our ambassador for religious freedom, Sam Brownback, former governor and former senator, is the most senior official to ever serve in that post and he is very engaged, visiting Iraq, Nigeria and the Rohingya refugee camps. He will be playing a very prominent role at the ministerial.

The Church has a strong network on the ground worldwide and President Trump has discussed giving more support to religious institutions providing aid in war-torn countries. Was that discussed?

We did talk at some length about Pope Francis’s recent remarks July 7 in Bari. We have made the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East a priority and Pope Francis observed that the Middle East has become a land of people who leave their own lands behind and he brought together the leaders of Middle Eastern Churches to pray for peace in the region.

We did talk at some length about that, and I’m sure that Pope Francis’s observations about giving a voice to those in the Middle East who are suffering will be important at our ministerial discussion.

Iran, a complex region, is a fundamental player in achieving peace in the Middle East. What do you see being the routes to that peace?

Let me say one thing about Iran and religious freedom. Iran’s penal code specifies the death sentence for attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, recently highlighted the large number of executions of Sunni, Kurdish prisoners on charges of enmity against God. The government continues to harass, interrogate and arrest the Baha’i, Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities.

As I said, they enforce a prohibition on proselytizing.  We will be highlighting Iran’s persecution of Christians and other religious minorities. Prior to the Iran Revolution, you had a number of faiths living together peacefully in Iran and this regime, over its almost 40-year reign, has made the persecution of religious minorities a hallmark of its brutality.