Vice President Mike Pence asked for believers across the nation to pray for missionary Andrew Brunson. The Turkish government moved the persecuted pastor from the jail cell to house arrest on Wednesday.
"This is a welcome first step, but it is not good enough," Pence said at the Ministerial for Religious Freedom. "I spoke to Pastor Brunson and his wife, Norine, yesterday. I know that his faith will sustain him, but it shouldn't have to. Pastor Andrew Brunson deserves to be free. Today, we're honored to be joined by a member of his family, his daughter Jacqueline. To Jacqueline, I promise you: As I told your father yesterday, President Trump and I will continue to fight to secure your father's full release until he is restored to your family and returns to the United States of America.
"To believers across America, I say: Pray for Pastor Brunson. While he is out of jail, he is still not free."
Like President Donald Trump, Pence also issued a warning to Turkey.
"And to President Erdogan and the Turkish government, I have a message on behalf of the president of the United States of America: Release Pastor Andrew Brunson now, or be prepared to face the consequences," Pence said. "If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this innocent man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free."
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, commended the vice president's warning to Turkey.
"The time to release Pastor Brunson is now. With President Trump and Vice President Pence calling for 'large sanctions' on Turkey, we know the administration's patience is gone," Perkins said. "The Trump administration has put a high priority on religious freedom and simply won't give up until Pastor Brunson is free. Turkey is a NATO ally but isn't acting like an ally as it tramples the values that reflect NATO's mission. Turkey must begin living up to its own constitution which guarantees the freedom of religion—including the freedom to share one's faith. Earlier this month, we gathered the names of thousands of people on a pledge to pray for Pastor Brunson. Those pledges have been delivered and Pastor Brunson is encouraged to know that the United States hasn't forgotten him. He won't be left behind."
Pence also addressed religious freedom worldwide, including atrocities in Nicaragua, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
We're joined today by Father Raul Zamora, who shepherds a flock at Divine Mercy Church and is a hero of the faith. Last week, the Ortega government laid siege to his church after more than 200 students sought shelter there, and two students lost their lives. They joined the more than 350 courageous Nicaraguans who've died in the cause of freedom this year alone.
Let me say to you, Father: Our prayers are with you, and the people of America stand with you for freedom of religion and freedom in Nicaragua.
Farther from home, but close to our hearts, religious persecution is growing in both scope and scale in the world's most populous country, the People's Republic of China. The State Department's annual International Religious Freedom report has labeled China as a religious freedom violator every year since 1999. Together with other religious minorities, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians are often under attack.
With us today is Kusho Golog Jigme, a Tibetan Buddhist monk. For nearly 70 years, the Tibetan people have been brutally repressed by the Chinese government. Kusho was jailed and tortured after he spoke out against the Chinese rule in his homeland. While he escaped China, his people's fight to practice their religion and protect their culture goes on. I say to Kusho, we are honored by your presence and we admire your courage and your stand for liberty.
Sadly, as we speak as well, Beijing is holding hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Uyghur Muslims in so-called "re-education camps," where they're forced to endure around-the-clock political indoctrination and to denounce their religious beliefs and their cultural identity as the goal.
But for all of China's abuses, their neighbor in North Korea is much worse. While we all hope that relations between the United States and North Korea continue to improve, and we certainly hope that the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons program can be eliminated, there is no escaping the plain fact that North Korea's leadership has exacted unparalleled privation and cruelty upon its people for decades.
Torture, mass starvation, public executions, murders and even forced abortions, and industrial-scale slave labor have been the means by which that regime has retained hold on its power for more than 70 years. Today, as we gather at this ministerial, an estimated 130,000 North Koreans are imprisoned for life in unimaginably brutal slave labor camps.
Contrasted with a thriving Christian community in South Korea, North Korea's persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth. It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding and often fatal. The mere possession of a Christian Bible is a capital offense. And those identified by the regime as Christians are regularly executed or condemned with their families to North Korea's gulags.
That's what happened to Ji Hyeona, who is here with us, and who I had the honor to meet when I traveled to the region earlier this year. Ji Hyeona was imprisoned and tortured simply for having a Bible that her mother had given her. And after a failed escape attempt, the North Korean authorities forced her to abort her unborn child. Hyeona was lucky enough to escape with her life, and we are honored to have you with us today. Your faith and your courage inspire us all.
In Russia, more than 170,000 Jehovah's Witnesses face similar persecution to other countries around the world. They're legally banned from practicing their faith. Government agents have seized Jehovah Witnesses' headquarters near St. Petersburg, raided their prayer halls across the country, and arrested and imprisoned scores of believers.
And turning our attention to the leading state sponsor of terror, the Islamic Republic of Iran, we recognize that the Iranian people enjoy few, if any, freedoms—least of all, the freedom of religion.
Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha'is and other minority religious groups are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority, and they are routinely fined, flogged, arrested, assaulted, and even killed. In 2016 alone, 20 Sunni Kurds were executed for the crime of allegedly "waging war against God," simply for practicing their faith.
And the people of the United States of America have a message to the long-suffering people of Iran: Even as we stand strong against the threats and malign actions of your leaders in Tehran, know that we are with you. We pray for you. And we urge you, the good people of Iran, to press on with courage in the cause of freedom and a peaceful future for your people.
The Ministerial for Religious Freedom is a multi-day summit concluding Thursday.
According to the State Department, the event focused on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change. The Ministerial will convened a broad range of stakeholders, including foreign ministers, international organization representatives, religious leaders and civil society representatives, who discussed challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.
"Religious liberty is a source of strength and stability for societies, and the focus that President Donald Trump and his administration have placed on this core principle sends a powerful message within our nation and to governments abroad," says Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of NRB. "Indeed, this emphasis is needed now more than ever as affronts to freedom and human dignity grow more severe in many places around the globe."
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