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Pence: America will prioritize protecting Christians abroad

Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in D.C. (Video: The Washington Post)

Vice President Pence sought on Thursday to reassure Christian leaders looking for the White House to focus more on the plight of persecuted Christians abroad.

“Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration,” the vice president said during a morning address at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians being held this week in Washington. Pence spoke to an audience who are grateful for the Trump administration’s statements of support for that cause but who are starting to question when the administration will take more concrete action.

Advocacy on behalf of people persecuted for being Christian is a topic “of enormous importance to this administration,” Pence said. Turning to speakers at the conference who were there to share their personal stories of persecution abroad, he said: “You have the prayers of the president of the United States. The suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred Americans to action, and it brings me here today.”

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Pence is very popular among the Christian leaders gathered at the conference at the Mayflower Hotel, which was organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Several said they trust that the administration wants to help Christians because they know that Pence cares about their cause.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, who led the conference, said in his introduction of Pence: “What I appreciate so much about our vice president is his strong faith in God and his belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God. As a nation, we are very fortunate to have a president that believes in God and a vice president who strongly supports all of us in the church and is not afraid to express his faith.”

President Trump and Pence have both spoken frequently about the importance of religious freedom. Last week Trump signed an executive order calling for reassessment of how religious employers can avoid providing insurance coverage for birth control, and promising that clergy should not be prosecuted for endorsing political candidates. Trump’s much-challenged travel ban — which blocks new visas to citizens of six majority-Muslim countries — in his first days in office included a clause declaring U.S. refugee admissions should prioritize persecuted Christians.

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But after more than 100 days of the administration, some Christian advocates have started looking for more results. Some are asking when Trump will appoint someone to the position of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, whether the State Department will implement training on religious freedom promised last year and how the administration is advocating on behalf of people persecuted for their Christian faith in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

“We’re urging that this be a priority,” said Frank Wolf, a former congressman representing Northern Virginia who now works for the Christian religious freedom advocacy organization Wilberforce. Wolf talked about the importance of filling the ambassadorship, a topic that speakers also raised from the stage during the conference.

“That’s one thing you could do: Put somebody in who cares deeply, who also has the gravitas to be able to pick up the phone and call the secretary of state,” Wolf said.

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A bill signed by President Barack Obama last year and applauded by many of the Christian leaders at the conference tasked the State Department with creating lists of prisoners of conscience so that American officials traveling abroad could advocate on their behalf. It also required Foreign Service officers to participate in mandatory training so that they could work on boosting religious freedom in the countries where they work. But Wolf said he worries that Trump’s understaffed State Department has not implemented the new law.

Ken Isaacs, who leads the government relations wing of Franklin Graham’s charity Samaritan’s Purse, said he hopes that eventually diplomats under Trump will make religious freedom a greater priority. “I think that during the last administration, this was not an issue,” Isaacs said. “The last administration had chosen to make an issue of LGBT issues throughout the world through their embassies. … The U.S. government is a very large, powerful entity, and when it decides to emphasize what it does prioritize, that affects what policies become.”

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Although some conservative Christians were disappointed in Trump’s executive order on religious freedom last week, saying it did not make much of a meaningful policy impact, Isaacs said the fact that the president dedicated an order to the subject was a promising sign of his commitment on the issue. Pence’s speech Thursday gave him even more hope, Isaacs said. “I think the fact that the vice president is coming illuminates that the persecution of Christians is not something they’re going to ignore.”

During his speech, Pence repeatedly reminded the attendees that he spoke on behalf of Trump, saying the president is devoted to First Amendment freedoms, including religious liberty for Christians and all other people of faith.

His discussion of policy mostly dealt with military action, not diplomacy. He said that Trump calls the persecutors of Christians by the name “radical Islamic terrorists,” which drew applause.

“The president knows that terrorists will not stop unless we stop them. Under President Donald Trump, we will stop them,” Pence said. “We will not rest. We will not relent until we hunt down and destroy ISIS at its source. … Because of the actions of President Donald Trump, ISIS is already on the run.”

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