Pompeo vows US will 'not stand by as spectators' on abuses of religious freedom

 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee May 23, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Strengthening American Diplomacy: Reviewing the State Department's Budget, Operations, and Policy Priorities." (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Washington (CNN)The United States will host the first ever ministerial meeting to advance religious freedom around the world this summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday at the unveiling of his agency's annual International Religious Freedom report.

The event, which will take place July 25 and July 26 in Washington, will provide an opportunity to "break new ground," Pompeo said, and will not just be a "discussion group."
In his remarks, Pompeo stressed his commitment to international religious freedom and insisted the United States "will not stand by as spectators" on the issue.
Even so, critics say the Trump administration's focus on religious freedom is undermined by President Donald Trump's own vocal criticism of Muslim immigrants, and worry the increased focus on this issue is forcing other concerns, such as women's reproductive rights or LGBTI rights, to the back burner.
    Briefing reporters on the report Tuesday, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called religious freedom "a foundational human right" from which other rights stem.
    "We put forward in the report everything that's happening around the world," Brownback said, "and we report it without favor or analysis."
    The report calls out abuses from US friends and foes alike. It notes the criminal detention of religious figures in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as North Korea and Iran.
    It also records "fewer instances of violence based on religious identity" in Russia, compared to previous years, as well as a drop in "cases of violations of religious freedom or belief" in Cuba.

    Myanmar situation remains "dire"

    The latest report paints a desperate picture of the plight facing religious minorities in Myanmar, from which hundreds of thousands of predominately Muslim Rohingya have fled as a result of systematic violence labeled "ethnic cleansing" by the US government.
    "The situation is dire," said Brownback. "We must do more to help them, as they continue to be targeted for their faith."
    Brownback met with Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh last month, but has so far been denied access to sites in Myanmar by that country's government.
    "I don't think you've seen progress taking place there in the country," Brownback said Tuesday, offering a bleak assessment of the situation. "If anything, the administration there is doubling, now, its effort in going after the (predominately Christian) Kachin in the northern part of the country"

    "Hopeful" about changes in Saudi Arabia

    Despite its strong ties to the United States, Saudi Arabia has long been cited for violations of religious freedom in the annual State Department report, as is the case again this year.
    The country's legal system criminalizes atheism, as well as efforts to undermine Islam, the report notes, and there is a pattern in the country of "societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims."
    Nevertheless, Brownback sounded an optimistic chord Tuesday, noting reform efforts initiated by the country's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
    "I'm hopeful that we can work to see more religious freedom taking place in Saudi Arabia," said Brownback.
    "For years we've reported on the state of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia," he added. "Today, I think we have some actual opportunities for that state to change, and for it to get much better."
    Brownback would not say whether Saudi Arabia will be invited to participate in the upcoming religious freedom ministerial meeting, but said the meeting will include representatives from "like-minded" countries, as well as from countries "working towards a greater religious freedom now."
    Meanwhile, Brownback singled out Iran -- a perennial US and Saudi foe -- as a country of "particular concern."

    North Korea remains a country of concern

    While the Trump administration appears to be making diplomatic inroads with the North Korean government on the issue of nuclear disarmament, the country's human rights record remains troubling to the United States.
    Citing a UN-sponsored document, the report notes alarming cases of "arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity."
    The report further estimates that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners are currently in North Korea's prison camp system "under horrific conditions."
    "According to NGOs and academics, the government's policy toward religion was to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences," the report states, "while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state."
    Brownback would not address whether these issues would be linked to future talks on the nuclear issue, but complimented Trump's overall approach towards North Korea and reiterated human rights concerns.
    "What we know is that you've got a gulag system operating in North Korea," said Brownback, "and it's been a terrible situation for many, for many years."

    China experiencing "troubling" decline in religious freedom

    Meanwhile, Brownback said China's human rights record "is a factor" in diplomatic discussions with the government in Beijing.
    In recent months, those discussions have centered increasingly on economic and trade concerns, with the White House announcing Tuesday that it will move forward with a plan to impose 25% tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese goods.
    Brownback noted "very, very troubling concerns, and a decline in religious freedom" in China, which he suggested could prompt US action.
    "There continued to be reports the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices, including members of unregistered Christian churches (also known as 'house churches')," the report notes.
    Self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhist monks continue, according to the report, which also notes US concerns for Falun Gong practitioners and the Muslim Uighur community.

    Calls for release of American pastor in Turkey

    Brownback called out NATO ally Turkey for its continued detention of American citizen Andrew Brunson, who was arrested over a year ago in Izmir, where he served as a pastor at a local church.
    "We will all continue to raise this case every chance we get until he is released," said Brownback, adding, "There are way too many Andrew Brunsons held unfairly in prisons around the world."
    The case has further strained an increasingly tense relationship between Washington and Ankara.
    The report itself says little about Brunson's specific case, but notes that "foreign citizens, including several individuals with ties to Christian groups, faced detention, problems with residency permits, or denial of entry to the country under the state of emergency."