Four Things You Should Know About Sec. Tillerson’s Speech on International Religious Freedom

By Faith McDonnell Published on August 19, 2017

On Tuesday, August 15, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the release of the 2016 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. This global report is a requirement of U.S. law. It came about through the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA).

Here are four points Secretary Tillerson made in his speech, of which you should be aware:

1. Tillerson reaffirmed and strengthened the former Secretary of State, John Kerry’s, May 17, 2016 declaration of genocide against Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims by ISIS. He pledged U.S. support to those groups and other religious minorities under threat. He also promised to protect their cultural heritage.

The Secretary went further than mere agreement. He removed “any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department.” Some in the State Department like ambiguity because it leaves wiggle room on U.S. action. And focus on persecuted Christians has been called a “religious test” in the past. But Tillerson said he was applying the legal requirements for genocide, “specific act, specific intent, specific people,” to the actual “facts at hand.”

He said it “leads to the conclusion ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against the Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims in areas it controls or has controlled.” Those groups and others, such as the Kurds and some Sunni Muslims, have been victims of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing by ISIS, the Secretary said.

Tillerson continued, “The protection of these groups — and others subject to violent extremism — is a human rights priority for the Trump administration.” He said that the U.S. government will keep working with regional partners “to protect religious minority communities from terrorist attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.”

It appears that Tillerson takes seriously the jihadists’ goal to build a global Islamic caliphate.

ISIS’ goal is to wipe out any trace of non-Muslim civilization. This cultural heritage, as you may know, goes back to Bible days and before. There was Jonah the Prophet, who preached until the whole city turned to God. You may also know that Iraq was the home of Abraham. And it was the home-in-exile of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

2. Tillerson called the Islamic State jihadists ISIS, not ISIL, and said that the U.S. was going to deny them their caliphate.

Whether our leadership says “ISIL” or “ISIS” may seem like a small thing. But it reveals a change in both the U.S.’ attitude and narrative on global jihad and supremacism. President Obama, and his whole administration, called the group “ISIL” (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Various reasons were given for why this was the case.

It appears that Tillerson takes seriously the jihadists’ goal to build a global Islamic caliphate. Its caliphate building and genocide against Christians go hand in hand. Since it first appeared on the scene, ISIS has targeted the “People of the Cross.” You will remember the horrific scenes on the Libyan sea shore in February and April 2015, among others.

You should know that the Islamic Caliphate’s war on Christians did not start with ISIS. The Islamic Republic of Sudan was in the Caliphate-building business long before ISIS. It would be good for us to remind Secretary Tillerson of this. Sudan’s advocates say it is time to permanently lift the sanctions that have been placed on Sudan. One was even quoted in the Sudan newspaper owned by Islamist President Bashir’s relatives.

3. Tillerson called out the Islamic Republic of Sudan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its violations of religious freedom.

Tillerson called out a number of governments that violate human rights. One was the repeat offender, Sudan. The Secretary said “in Sudan the government arrests, detains and intimidates clergy and church members.” He added that the government “denies permits for the construction of new churches and is closing or demolishing existing ones.”

He encouraged the Government of Sudan to “engage concretely on the religious freedom action plan provided by the department last year.” But that’s not likely to happen.

The Secretary has far more excuse since he is new to the muck and mire of dealing with Sudan. But “the department” should be reminded of a few things. The President of Sudan is guilty of war crimes. The government of Sudan uses deceptive charm, denial of wrongdoing, delay in responding and diversion to other crises. In this way, it continues its long-term agenda against the black African tribal groups in Sudan and against the new nation of South Sudan.

4. Tillerson gave kudos to others.

There is much to lament in the state of global religious freedom. But Tillerson’s words are encouraging.

The Secretary of State looked both to the past and to the future, praising defenders of religious freedom.

Tillerson said that the IRFA “upholds religious freedom as a core American value under the Constitution’s First Amendment, and as a universal human right.”

The Secretary thanked his “many colleagues at the department and overseas.” He specifically named the Office of International Religious Freedom, Senior Advisor on Global Justice Issues Pam Pryor, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities Knox Thames, and the previous ambassador-at-large, David Saperstein.

Finally, Tillerson looked to the future. He called for the “swift confirmation” of Gov. Sam Brownback. Nominated as the Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Brownback will be “the highest ranking official ever to take up this important post,” he said. Brownback has long defended human rights and religious freedom.

There is much to lament in the state of global religious freedom. But the words of Secretary Rex Tillerson are encouraging. They pledge the Trump administration’s commitment to the cause. Now it is up to concerned citizens to make sure that commitment remains.

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