“Defending the right of all people to live their lives according to their conscience is one of this administration’s top priorities,” Pompeo said at the State Department’s Feb. 5 dinner to celebrate the launching of the alliance. Pompeo talked about his recent trip to Kazakhstan, where he met with families of ethnic Kazakhs detained in internment camps in Xinjiang.
“We condemn the Chinese Communist Party’s hostility to all faiths,” Pompeo said. “We know several of you courageously pushed back against Chinese pressure by agreeing to be part of this Alliance, and we thank you for that.”
Those words rang hollow to those U.S. officials, human rights activists and supporters of Taiwan who knew that the State Department had excluded Taiwan from full membership of the alliance despite Taiwan’s enthusiastic work and generous financial contributions to the religious freedom campaign. Adding insult to injury, the organizers failed to invite a senior Taiwanese leader to Pompeo’s dinner — despite the fact that he was already in town and wanted to attend.
Human rights activist Bob Fu, founder and president of China Aid, a nonprofit group that provides legal aid to Christians in China, hosted Taiwan’s vice president-elect William Lai in Washington last week and brought him as a guest to the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 6. Lai also met with lawmakers during his visit, which he made in his personal capacity because he is not yet a Taiwanese government official.
Some State Department officials were working to secure Lai an invitation to Pompeo’s dinner, but Pompeo’s office refused to issue one. When the list of International Religious Freedom Alliance members was released, Taiwan wasn’t on it.
“It is a terrible injustice to exclude Taiwan from the first international alliance to advance religious freedom led by the United States,” Fu said. “By disinviting Taiwan for whatever geopolitical excuses, the United States is sending the wrong signal to the Chinese Communist Party regime, where religious persecution has reached the worst level in 40 years.”
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, which represents Taiwan’s interests in the United States in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, declined to comment on the record. But Taiwan has been one of the most active members of the State Department’s international religious freedom effort until now.
Taiwan attended ministerial-level meetings to advance religious freedom in Washington in 2018 and 2019. In March 2019, the State Department’s ambassador for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, visited Taipei, where the Taiwanese government pledged $1 million for the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Fund.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen even hosted a Religious Freedom Conference to coincide with Brownback’s visit. The conference included participation of Christian, Tibetan and Uighur leaders whose peoples have all suffered extensive and ongoing persecution by the Chinese authorities for reasons relating to faith. Brownback used the occasion to lavish praise on the Taiwanese for their embrace of religious tolerance.
“As a U.S. official, Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner and a force for good in the world,” Brownback said at the event.
The State Department would not say why Taiwan was excluded from the International Religious Freedom Alliance or why Lai was not invited to the dinner. Two sources told me that Beijing brought pressure on multiple countries involved in the campaign to make sure Taiwan was not included. At one point in its preparations for launching the alliance, multiple sources said the State Department offered Taiwan “observer status,” whatever that means. But that “observer status” has not been acknowledged by the State Department publicly anywhere.
“Our partnership with Taiwan on religious freedom issues could not be stronger, and while they were not among the initial founding members of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, we remain active in our discussions with them on potentially joining,” a State Department spokesperson told me. “Any notion to the contrary is false.”
Of course, the partnership could be stronger if the State Department would just invite Taiwan to join the alliance. The spokesperson did say they are still accepting Taiwan’s financial contribution to the effort.
“Taiwan’s generosity and contributions to the International Religious Freedom Fund have also enabled us to allocate emergency assistance to victims of religiously motivated discrimination and abuse around the world,” the spokesperson said.
The Trump administration claims to support Taiwan’s expanded inclusion in international bodies such as the World Health Organization, while Beijing is working overtime to isolate Taiwan politically and diplomatically all over the world. But how can the United States government push other countries to include Taiwan if the State Department won’t include Taiwan in its own initiatives?
Pompeo and the State Department can fix this mistake by apologizing to Taiwan and adding it to the International Religious Freedom Alliance today. If the Trump administration really believes in pushing back against Chinese repression and standing with countries that protect the right to worship, it must practice what it preaches.