Some see Christian First bias in Trump foreign policy

The Trump administration has not been as vocal about the situation in Myanmar, where a massive crackdown by the Buddhist-dominated military more than a year ago killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Some see Christian First bias in Trump foreign policy

A White House official called any suggestion of religious favoritism ‘demonstrably false.’

Evangelical Christians came out aggressively for Donald Trump in 2016. As president, Trump has returned the favor, delivering for the Christian right — not just at home, but also overseas.

Trump defied international opinion and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The White House rattled relations with NATO ally Turkey by imposing sanctions over its detention of an American pastor. Trump’s initial travel ban included exemptions for Christians. Senior administration officials have eagerly taken up a cause that happens to be a favorite of the Christian right: global religious freedom. And the State Department was quick to call the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians a “genocide.”

But for human rights activists, Democrats and even some Republican staffers in Congress, these and other policies appear to have come at the expense of other religious groups — especially Muslims.

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem upset many Muslim leaders in the Arab world. Trump’s travel ban has been condemned for largely affecting Muslims overseas. The administration also has not yet applied the “genocide” designation to another well-documented slaughter of a religious minority — the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

“The sense that human rights apply universally doesn’t carry weight with most people in this administration,” said Sarah Margon, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

a summit of Christian evangelicals in May 2017.

Although the Obama administration first declared that ISIS was carrying out genocide against Christians and other groups, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed that verdict after word spread among Christian activists that the Trump administration might be reneging on the Obama-era declaration. Tillerson said he wanted to remove any “ambiguity” about where the new administration stood.

The administration has not been as vocal about the situation in Myanmar, where a massive crackdown by the Buddhist-dominated military more than a year ago killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and forced 700,000 of them to flee to nearby Bangladesh.

A U.N. panel has already that Myanmar military leaders should face genocide charges. Canadian lawmakers have reached the same conclusion. And the International Criminal Court is ways to hold Myanmar responsible.

But Pompeo, who controls the administration’s deliberations on the subject, has not yet said whether he agrees that Myanmar’s military committed genocide. He has also not said whether the Rohingya were victims of the lesser, yet still serious, charge of “crimes against humanity.”

, based on interviews with more than 1,000 survivors, described a litany of horrors Myanmar’s military inflicted on the Rohingya, including throwing children into fires. The violence, it said, appeared “well-planned and coordinated.”

But when it comes to placing a formal designation on the violence, the State Department is sticking with “ethnic cleansing,” a term that has little weight in international law.

Aides to Pompeo, who replaced Tillerson in late April, dispute the notion that the State Department’s different approaches to Christians under ISIS and Muslims in Myanmar indicated a religious bias.

“These are human beings with tragic experiences, not numbers on a scale from 1 to 10,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement to POLITICO.

And while Pompeo has taken flak from Muslim groups for past remarks they deemed offensive, the person close to the secretary insisted he’s not biased against the religious group. Instead, this person said, Pompeo is likely caught up in the legal nuances as well as the geopolitical implications of making a “genocide” declaration, knowing, for instance, it could undermine U.S. efforts to woo Myanmar away from China.

Some U.S. lawmakers are tired of waiting for Pompeo. Last week, a bipartisan group of House members, led by Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio, introduced a resolution recognizing the plight of the Rohingya as a genocide.

“Pre-planned murders, gang rapes, the burning of villages and many other gruesome and heinous crimes that cannot be discussed in a civilized setting make this self-evident,” Chabot said in a statement.

Activists trying to raise support for the Rohingya — among them some Christian evangelicals — note that Muslims don’t wield the same kind of political power in Washington as the Christian right. In their communications with the administration, many of those activists make sure to mention that Myanmar’s military also oppresses some Christians.

A senior Republican congressional aide said he couldn’t dispute that there’s a perception that the administration prioritizes Christians. He added, however, that the issues at stake are complicated, and that even for Christians to get the U.S. recognition of genocide under the Obama administration took months of political pressure.

new measures to help those groups. A career USAID staffer was kicked out of her position on what some colleagues suspect were orders from Pence.

The White House official described the $150 million in aid to Iraq as intended for Christians as well as other “persecuted minority groups.” The official also stressed that Pence was sympathetic toward all oppressed religious groups.

In a speech Thursday denouncing China, Pence mentioned the Asian power had created “a new wave of persecution” that “is crashing down on Chinese Christians, Buddhists and Muslims.”

The administration’s heavy focus on religious freedom happens to be a key priority of Christian conservatives, who fear for their brethren in places like the Muslim-majority Middle East.

Top aides like Pence and Pompeo speak regularly about the issue, often in settings dominated by evangelicals.

Pompeo recently discussed the subject at the conservative Values Voter Summit.

In his remarks, Pompeo raised the case of Andrew Brunson, the Christian pastor detained in Turkey over questionable charges of aiding terrorists. His case is a rallying cry for the GOP’s evangelical wing. Even though other Americans are detained in Turkey, the administration is most fixated on Brunson.

At the Values Voter Summit, Pompeo mentioned the persecution of groups such as Uighur Muslims to Baha’is and Zoroastrians. But the most significant chunks of his speech focused on the repression faced by Christians in places such as North Korea and Iran.

One group Pompeo didn’t mention? The Rohingya.

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