Pompeo vows US will 'not stand by as spectators' on abuses of religious freedom

 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee May 23, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Strengthening American Diplomacy: Reviewing the State Department's Budget, Operations, and Policy Priorities." (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Washington (CNN)The United States will host the first ever ministerial meeting to advance religious freedom around the world this summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday at the unveiling of his agency's annual International Religious Freedom report.

The event, which will take place July 25 and July 26 in Washington, will provide an opportunity to "break new ground," Pompeo said, and will not just be a "discussion group."
In his remarks, Pompeo stressed his commitment to international religious freedom and insisted the United States "will not stand by as spectators" on the issue.
    Even so, critics say the Trump administration's focus on religious freedom is undermined by President Donald Trump's own vocal criticism of Muslim immigrants, and worry the increased focus on this issue is forcing other concerns, such as women's reproductive rights or LGBTI rights, to the back burner.
    Briefing reporters on the report Tuesday, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called religious freedom "a foundational human right" from which other rights stem.
    "We put forward in the report everything that's happening around the world," Brownback said, "and we report it without favor or analysis."
    The report calls out abuses from US friends and foes alike. It notes the criminal detention of religious figures in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as North Korea and Iran.
    It also records "fewer instances of violence based on religious identity" in Russia, compared to previous years, as well as a drop in "cases of violations of religious freedom or belief" in Cuba.

    Myanmar situation remains "dire"

    The latest report paints a desperate picture of the plight facing religious minorities in Myanmar, from which hundreds of thousands of predominately Muslim Rohingya have fled as a result of systematic violence labeled "ethnic cleansing" by the US government.
    "The situation is dire," said Brownback. "We must do more to help them, as they continue to be targeted for their faith."
    Brownback met with Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh last month, but has so far been denied access to sites in Myanmar by that country's government.
    "I don't think you've seen progress taking place there in the country," Brownback said Tuesday, offering a bleak assessment of the situation. "If anything, the administration there is doubling, now, its effort in going after the (predominately Christian) Kachin in the northern part of the country"

    "Hopeful" about changes in Saudi Arabia

    Despite its strong ties to the United States, Saudi Arabia has long been cited for violations of religious freedom in the annual State Department report, as is the case again this year.
    The country's legal system criminalizes atheism, as well as efforts to undermine Islam, the report notes, and there is a pattern in the country of "societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims."
    Nevertheless, Brownback sounded an optimistic chord Tuesday, noting reform efforts initiated by the country's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
    "I'm hopeful that we can work to see more religious fr