President Donald Trump announced new initiatives as part of a global call for protecting religious freedom at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, which his aides have characterized as the centerpiece of his visit to the conference of world leaders.
Trump announced that the US would dedicate “$25 million to protect religious freedom, religious sites, and relics.” In addition, the US will be “forming a coalition of US businesses for the protection of religious freedom.”
Trump said he is the first US president to host such a meeting.
“That’s very sad in many ways,” he said. The President also called the issue one of his “highest priorities.”
“Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution. Stop the crimes against people of faith,” Trump said. “Release prisoners of conscience. Repeal laws restricting freedom of religion and belief. Protect the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed.”
Additionally, he asked “the governments of the world to honor the eternal right of every person to follow their conscience, live by their faith, and give glory to God.”
Several senior members of the Trump administration were also at the event. Vice President Mike Pence, US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were seated next to Trump at the dais.
The religious freedom event included several statements from individuals affected by religious persecution around the world, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey.
Trump said he didn’t think other Presidents tried very hard to get Brunson out of prison. Brunson had been detained for two years.
“We did a good job with that negotiation,” Trump told Brunson, who was in the seating area, adding that the negotiation “wasn’t pretty.”
Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, told CNN that though there has been a focus on the current tensions between the Chinese government and Muslim Uyghurs, the issue is more widespread.
“The reason China has such a focus is they’re kind of exploring the limits of new systems of how you persecute a religious minority. But we’ve got persecution in 80% of the global population,” Brownback said. He also named Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt as places where there are “difficulties” with religious freedom.
Rabbi Jack Moline, the president of Interfaith Alliance – a progressive group created “to celebrate religious freedom and to challenge the bigotry” – criticized Trump, citing the President’s past proposal for a Muslim travel ban to the US.
“President Trump was elected on the promise of a ‘complete and utter shutdown’ of Muslim immigration to the US. Since then, his administration has worked tirelessly to redefine ‘religious freedom’ as a license to discriminate,” Moline said in a statement. “If the President is serious about promoting true religious freedom worldwide, he should start with his own policies.”
Emilie Kao, the director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, told CNN that the new initiatives are “consistent with what the administration has already been doing, but just at a higher level.”
Kao said that by convening a multilateral meeting at the UNGA with a speakers list that included individuals fleeing religious persecution, the US was making a bold statement. While some of the individuals took part in events in Washington, at the UNGA meeting, they addressed world leaders in the same building, making the environment “much more confrontational.”
The religious freedom event comes alongside a Climate Action Summit at the UN General Assembly. Trump was not scheduled to attend, despite the long list of world leaders slated to speak.
However, ahead of his speech denouncing religious persecution, he sat in on the speeches for about 15 minutes, watching Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel deliver remarks.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Jennifer Hansler and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.