Trump Expected to Advance Religious Liberty at the UN

By Ken Blackwell Published on September 24, 2018

Every year, without fail, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for religious freedom. Persecution of religious minorities is deeply ingrained in its government. Among those most at risk are Christians. Especially Christians who have converted from Islam.

The most recent State Department report on International Religious Freedom attests to this fact. According to the report, more than 600 Christians were imprisoned between 2010 and 2017. Just for practicing their faith. The same report notes an upsurge in anti-Christian sentiment within Iran’s state media. It also points to more frequent and aggressive raids on home-based churches.

International human rights groups can naturally be counted on to back up these findings. They push for action on behalf of those at-risk in the Islamic Republic.

Of course, this goes to show how deeply Islamic extremism is ingrained in Iran’s regime. Every time it treats membership in a religious minority as a national security crime, the regime effectively admits it cannot survive with religious freedom. As such, the mullahs tacitly admit this almost every single day.

A Tale of Two Administrations

There is no reason for any modern, democratic government to dispute the regime’s lack of religious freedom. Yet the previous White House did just that. It joined with the European Union in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, claiming seek “moderation” among the leadership. More than three years later, the naivety of this view has been clearly exposed.

As was revealed recently, some former officials have not given up hope for keeping this deal afloat. John Kerry, for instance, has met with his Iranian counterparts and advised them to wait until Trump is out of office. This conduct is hard to fathom. It is very damaging to U.S. national security. Not only that, it harms prospects for promoting religious liberty in the Middle East.

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Fortunately, the current administration has no such impulse to ignore systematic violations of religious freedom while waiting for Tehran to correct its behavior.

In fact, the Trump administration has made religious freedom a major focus of its foreign policy. This was demonstrated in July when the State Department hosted its first ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. And we saw it again this week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the Values Voter Summit to participate in a discussion on international religious liberty. None of his predecessors in the office have done the same.

The significance of these gestures is amplified by Trump’s commitment to foreign policies that will hold Tehran and other repressive governments accountable for violations of the rights of Christians and other minorities. The U.S. is now re-imposing the sanctions that were suspended in the wake of short-sighted negotiations. This is being done with the express purpose of pushing Iran toward a complete change of behavior.

An Alternative to the Iranian Regime

In addition to its policy, the White House should publicly recognize that there is a viable alternative to the current regime. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is that alternative. It has already specified unqualified religious freedom as part of its vision for Iran’s democratic future. The 2018 Iran Uprising Summit to be held later this week will echo this message.

The NCRI is a coalition of Iranian opposition movements with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) at its core. The longstanding pro-democratic Resistance has made itself known in recent months as the driving force behind a far-reaching human rights protest movement. This movement speaks for the economically disenfranchised, for the wrongfully imprisoned, for persecuted minorities, and so on.

In January, the supreme leader of Iran’s regime credited the MEK with facilitating the rapid spread of the protests. They used this fact to spur a more aggressive crackdown on the MEK. But even after 8,000 arrests and 50 deaths, the Iranian public remained ready to take to the streets again. The protest movement showed a significant resurgence in March, after NCRI President Maryam Rajavi called for “a year full of uprisings” in pursuit of “final victory” over the Iranian regime. In August, protests erupted in more than two dozen cities and towns. Anti-government protests have become a new feature of the Iranian political landscape.

Standing for Religious Liberty

It’s great that Trump’s White House has given religious freedom a place of prominence in its foreign policy. But it can only truly follow through on its commitment to that principle if it partners with local actors who share the same goals.

Though Iran is one of the world’s most troubled areas in terms of religious liberty and human rights, it is also home to one of the most active and well-established movements in favor of Western-style values and democracy. There is no better way of promoting those values in Iranian society than by supporting the MEK and its allies. President Trump will preside over the U.N. Security Council session on September 26. This is a unique chance for the U.S. to take a stand for religious freedom and make a clear case for greater pressure on Iran.


Ken Blackwell serves on the board of First Liberty Institute. He was formerly a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

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