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Summit spotlights plight of persecuted religious groups from Nicaragua to China

Speakers and panelists at a prominent religious freedom summit in Washington Jan. 30-31 examined the plight of religious groups facing persecution around the world, including Catholics in Nicaragua, Christians in Nigeria, Uyghurs in China, as well as a global rise in antisemitism.

Organizers of the International Religious Freedom Summit, an annual gathering of lawmakers and human rights advocates in Washington, said they would seek to bring together “a broad coalition that passionately supports religious freedom around the globe.”

In a keynote address to the summit, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said the United States is called to be an example of religious freedom around the globe since the right to freedom of religion is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

“Our nation’s birth certificate states that very clearly,” he said.

Johnson argued that “when religious freedom is taken away from a people, political freedom soon follows, we know that that is the lesson of history.”

Noting that suffering around the world is taking place, Johnson said religious freedom should not be a political issue.

“In Nigeria, Christians and minority Muslims are attacked and killed by mobs and terrorists,” he said. “Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba hunt down and imprison Catholic priests and Baptist pastors who simply preach the Gospel and speak out against the regime.”

Johnson added Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners also are in danger, while “Uyghur Muslims are suffering under the Chinese Communist Party’s genocidal campaign of forced sterilization, forced detention and reeducation.”

“Millions of Uyghurs have been detained in these camps where they’re kept in cramped cells and they’re tortured and brainwashed. We all know this,” he said. “Uyghur women are subjected to heinous violence I won’t bear to repeat this morning.”

Johnson said such acts are indicative of tyranny.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., spoke at the summit to denounce antisemitism. “We need concrete action to overcome attacks on the most fundamental of human rights,” she said, “the rights to one’s conscience and beliefs.”

“As a Jewish American, this mission is personal for me,” Wasserman Schultz said. “My own family arrived in the U.S. as migrants fleeing persecution and pogroms in Eastern Europe, motivated by the universal desire for freedom and a better life. Because of their strength and determination, I grew up in a place where I can speak my mind and be whatever I want to be, in line with my beliefs and my Jewish values.”

Wasserman Schultz said, “It’s so horrifying to see the resurgence of antisemitism around the world and particularly here in the U.S.”

Thanking Johnson for his commitment to cooperation on combating antisemitism, Wasserman Schultz said that despite bipartisan cooperation on the subject, the issue remains a significant obstacle. She added that she has spoken to “college students who share that they are afraid to wear a kippah or post the mezuzah on their door, even as our government mobilizes on a bipartisan basis to counter antisemitism.”

“While the United States can and should serve always as an emblem of freedom of conscience, threats are always lurking,” she said.

Several speakers and panelists spoke of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s anti-Catholic persecution, including former Vice President Mike Pence.

Ortega’s regime has persecuted the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, U.S. officials and lawmakers have said, targeting Church leaders who have criticized his government. Among them, Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced in February 2023 to 26 years in prison the day after he refused to be deported to the U.S. with more than 200 other Nicaraguan political prisoners.

Pope Francis publicly denounced Bishop Álvarez’s sentence and the deportation of Nicaraguans from their homeland. The Vatican March 18 shuttered its nunciature in Nicaragua after Ortega’s government proposed suspending diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Bishop Álvarez, along with 18 other Churchmen, was exiled and deported to Rome earlier in January, after spending over 500 days in prison.

In remarks at the summit, Pence argued the U.S. should alter its existing trade agreement with Nicaragua if the Ortega regime’s religious persecution continues.

“I believe the time has come,” he said, “for the United States to make it clear to Nicaragua that we will not tolerate action against, suppression of, Church leaders and religious leaders in Nicaragua without consequence.”

Noting the United States has a free trade agreement with Nicaragua, Pence said that he “believes in free trade with free nations.”

“We ought to make it clear to Nicaragua that you will begin to respect the religious liberty of people of every faith in Nicaragua or our relationship will change,” he said.

Pence made a similar argument in response to a separate question regarding China’s repression of Uyghurs. He called for the U.S. to show “moral clarity” by taking actions that include “standing up for the Uyghurs who have faced repression, have been rounded up into camps, (and subjected to) forced sterilization” and showing solidarity with persecuted “Christian pastors, Churches that have been burned to the ground and other religious minorities.”

He said, “I really do believe the nature of our economic relationship ought to be tied to advancing the interest of our country with nations that share our core values.”