The New Diplomacy Normal: Freedom First

June 3, 2020

The United States isn't the only country split wide open by pain and grief. In Nigeria, where senseless killings are a way of life, people are struggling to find the words to describe the horror inside a church in Benin City, where a young, 22-year-old microbiology student was found, lying in a pool of her own blood. Raped, attacked, and left half-naked on the floor, Vera Omozuwa had come to the sanctuary to study. She liked it, a parish member said, because it was peaceful. She died, telling a very different story.

A member of the church's choir, Vera had just been accepted at the university. When she didn't return the key to the sanctuary later that day, one of the Redeemed Christian Church of God's staffer started to worry. A night guard found her and rushed her to the hospital. But her injuries were too severe. She died three days later. Her own mom didn't even know about Vera's condition until a neighbor told her. "I ran [to the church] but before I got there, they took her to a private hospital and when I saw my daughter, I cried. They raped her; the dress she was wearing that morning was white. The white had turned to red; all her body was full of blood," she cried.

Unlike a lot of horrific killings in Nigeria, this one seems to have gotten the world's attention. As CNN points out, "the RCCG church is one of the largest denominations in the country with hundreds of parishes." The idea that innocent people would be targeted there is a nightmare that families in the remote villages have been living for months. Fulani herdsman and Boko Haram have combined to terrorize Christians in the less populated areas than Benin, burning down houses, executing and kidnapping young people, missionaries, and newlyweds. Attacks with machetes, midnight invasions, beheadings are fears that every mother and father in the western region knows well.

Now that Nigeria is on more people's minds, what President Trump did Tuesday carries even more significance. Despite the challenges here at home, this administration hasn't lost sight of the countries who struggle to cope with senseless killings almost every day. So, to add to the White House's already ground-breaking record on international religious liberty, the president signed an executive order that has been months in the making, building on his legacy with something no other administration in history has attempted: making our First Freedom a top priority in foreign policy dealings.

In the executive order, the president asked the State Department and USAID to "develop a plan to prioritize international religious freedom" and to "budget at least $50 million per fiscal year for programs that advance international religious freedom." On top of that, the Hill explains, government leaders will be expected to undergo training, along with diplomats on religion "to empower them to bring up international religious freedom issues when meeting with foreign officials."

Ambassador Sam Brownback couldn't have been more thrilled. On "Washington Watch," celebrating the move, he explained, "Today was a big milestone day. No administration has ever done an executive order on international religious freedom," he pointed out. "And [this] one is a fairly expansive, the one the administration did today... [It's] just really huge." For once, he explained, America is tying our "development aid to our values. And one of our core values is religious freedom."

By this order, the president is taking the debate over international religious liberty beyond rhetoric and into reality, where actual dollars hang in the balance. "The president saying, 'Within the next 180 days, I want to plan from State Department and USAID on how you're going to integrate and expand and really kind of feather in to all of statecraft and all of the foreign policy apparatus and our development money this concept of international religious freedom.'" That means that the countries of particular concern and the special watch list regions -- some of the worst actors on religious persecution -- are going to feel the heat. "We're going to target them to really force them to step up and do a better job on religious freedom."

It's a one-of-a-kind integration of diplomacy and religious freedom. Instead of pushing the issue to the backburner in conversations with other leaders, President Trump is saying: this has to be a part of the discussion. Even, Sam pointed out, in other agencies' dealings. "If an entity of U.S. government, say the Treasury Department or Agriculture Department, has foreign apparatuses -- and they do -- they've got to engage on religious freedom issues as well."

"And in case some of your listeners are [wondering], are we [focusing] too much on this one topic? I would just remind people, this is just a foundational human right. You get this one right, and the others tend to flourish -- the ability to speak, the ability to communicate, the ability to assemble, because this is just such a hard one for a lot of countries and in a lot of places. So that's why we really want to put a lot on this one. This is your fundamental. You get your fundamentals right, you can do more. You get your fundamentals wrong, things sink faster. And so, this is this a big addition on religious freedom that happened today by this administration. And I think it's warranted. And I think it'll pay dividends for the United States and our foreign policy and how these other countries act and the freedoms of their citizens around the world."

Citizens like Nigeria's, where even religious tolerance could lead to a new dawning of stability. Or, at the very least, a safety -- which, for innocent young women like Vera -- is the very least they deserve.