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Federal Commission Challenges Trump To Support Global Religious Freedom


A bipartisan government commission has challenged the Trump administration to do more to support religious freedom around the world. Saudi Arabia, a key administration ally, comes in for special criticism in the commission's new report released today. More now from NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has members appointed both by the president and by Congress with a formula to achieve some political balance. The idea is to keep religious freedom concerns separate from geopolitics - not always easy. Terzin (ph) Dorjee is the commission chairman.

TENZIN DORJEE: Our mandate is just to focus on religious freedom conditions, but the State Department has to also think about overall diplomatic relations and many other issues.

GJELTEN: Dorjee is a Tibetan American, a translator of Buddhist teachings. He says the principle of religious freedom is central to who he is. But the U.S. government also wants to maintain strategic alliances even with countries that are notorious violators of religious freedom.

The commission recommends that 16 countries be identified as of particular concern; Saudi Arabia and China are singled out. The commission says the Saudis arrest people for dissent, blasphemy and apostasy. Just last week, the Saudi government beheaded 37 Saudi nationals. Almost all of them were Shia Muslims, a group that faces severe repression.

The commission recommends sanctions on Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern, but the Trump administration is engaged with the Saudis these days. The State Department is waiving sanctions against the country, citing important national interests. Dorjee says his commission wants the State Department to keep the sanctions, not waive them.

DORJEE: Once the State use the waiver, then our designation doesn't have its teeth, so that's why we asked for it.

GJELTEN: One commission member dissented - Johnnie Moore, one of President Trump's appointments to the religious freedom commission. Moore was one of several evangelical Christian leaders who went to Saudi Arabia recently to meet with government officials. He now agrees with the State Department; sanctions should be waived.

JOHNNIE MOORE: I believe Saudi Arabia ought to be held account for every single violation. But I still believe that as a pragmatic matter, you know, the way of effecting change in Saudi Arabia is direct engagement.

GJELTEN: There are the countries the State Department and the religious freedom commission see differently. The commission says Russia, for example, targets religious minorities and cites it as a country of particular concern. The State Department disagrees. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE ZERO 7'S "RED DUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.