“In America we’ve always understood that our rights come from God, not from government,” Trump told the group in the Oval Office, where they were joined by White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Sam Brownback, the administration’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
“I don’t think any president has taken it as seriously as me,” Trump said of protecting religious freedoms abroad, even though the White House has faced increasing calls from Congress and human rights groups to penalize Beijing for abuses of Uighurs.
Trump, who had not previously spoken publicly about the Uighurs, has reportedly pushed off economic sanctions amid his administration’s trade negotiations with China.
Human rights advocates, as well as some Trump administration officials, have accused Beijing of jailing the Uighurs in harsh internment camps operated outside the country’s legal system. Chinese leaders have called the facilities “reeducation camps,” citing concerns about domestic terrorism in Xinjiang province.
Trump said his administration plans to announce new measures Thursday aimed at protecting religious minority groups, though he did not provide details. He said Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will deliver speeches on the issue.
“The world is a tough place, and we’re making good strides,” Trump said.
The event came as the president has been eager to shore up support among evangelical conservatives ahead of his reelection campaign. While Pence, Pompeo and Brownback have spoken out forcefully, Trump has been less vocal in some instances.
Trump also had not publicly spoken about atrocities in Myanmar, where up to half a million Rohingya were displaced and thousands killed by the Buddhist majority and government troops in what a top U.N. official called “genocide.”
Last month, Pence twice was scheduled to deliver a speech on China’s mistreatment of Christians and the Uighurs, along with other human rights abuses, part of an effort by the Trump administration to get tougher on Beijing. Both times, Pence postponed his remarks amid concerns from the White House that it could damage chances for a bilateral trade deal, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
“This administration is giving a tremendous amount of focus on religious freedom,” Bob Roberts, a pastor at Northwood Church in Keller, Tex., who has urged evangelical Christians to speak out on behalf of the Uighurs, said in an interview Wednesday before the meeting was made public.
He praised the efforts of Pence, Pompeo and Brownback and said of Trump: “I don't think it would hurt for him to say something in public. He doesn’t have anything to lose.”
A bipartisan group of senators led by Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation to hold China accountable on the persecution of the Uighurs.