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Lankford to State: Explain policy to free Americans

WASHINGTON (BP) — A Southern Baptist member of the U.S. Senate has asked the State Department to explain its diplomatic strategy for gaining the freedom of American citizens wrongly imprisoned overseas.

A Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate, meanwhile, encouraged advocacy for all prisoners of conscience.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., sent a letter Thursday (March 16) to urge Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to establish a diplomatic approach that includes the use of sanctions against countries that unjustly imprison Americans for such reasons as their religious beliefs. Among the U.S. citizens currently detained overseas is Andrew Brunson, a pastor incarcerated in Turkey since October.

In his letter, Lankford asked Tillerson a series of questions about State Department policies and procedures regarding the foreign detention of Americans.

“It is critically important that the United States has a strategy in place for how to engage with a foreign government when they are holding one of our citizens,” the senator said in his letter. “We cannot allow law-abiding Americans to spend countless days, months or even years in a foreign detention or prison system without a concrete plan in place to secure their release.”

While Lankford’s latest letter to Tillerson focuses on unjustly imprisoned Americans, he also has worked in Congress on behalf of persecuted religious adherents and other foreign citizens who are detained, imprisoned, tortured or otherwise persecuted.

The unjust imprisonment of people of faith and others is a widespread problem for the citizens of many countries, not just Americans. Among religious adherents alone, more than five billion people suffer detention, imprisonment or other forms of religious persecution, according to the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

“Victims of religious persecution include prisoners of conscience all around the globe,” said Matthew Hawkins, coalitions director of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “As Christians, we pray for our fellow Christians, for their care and the advance of the gospel because of their suffering. We also advocate for the release of prisoners of conscience of any faith because no government has authority over the conscience.”

In February, Lankford and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., led an appeal by 10 senators that urged President Trump and Tillerson to nominate quickly an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The Trump administration has yet to name a nominee.

Lankford also serves as co-chairman with Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., another Southern Baptist, of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, which advocates for religious freedom in the United States and overseas.

Among the American citizens who have been imprisoned unjustly in recent years — and were cited by Lankford’s office in a release accompanying the letter — are Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor who was freed last year after three and a half years in an Iranian prison; Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post who was in an Iranian jail for 18 months before being released at the same time as Abedini; and Aijalon Gomes, who was held in North Korea for seven months before his release in 2010.

In December, Lankford and two House of Representatives members met in Turkey with Bilal Ucar, the country’s assistant justice minister, to advocate for Brunson’s release. Brunson had served as a pastor in Izmir, Turkey, for more than 20 years upon his detention.

Lankford wrote in a January opinion piece for Fox News that Brunson’s detention was based on uncorroborated accusations of ties to the Islamic Fetullah Gülen movement, a group accused of attempting a coup last year in Turkey. The local prosecutor has still not provided compelling evidence against Brunson, Lankford said. “[R]eligious freedom is more than just an American right; it is a basic human right that should be embraced around the world,” Lankford wrote.

In his March 16 letter to Tillerson, Lankford asked — among other questions — what actions are taken by the State Department when an American citizen is detained in another country. He also wanted to know whether the authority to issue sanctions is raised when seeking to free Americans and whether there is a standard policy that is followed in every case or each detention is handled case by case.

He hopes the State Department will raise its congressionally given authority to impose sanctions when working to gain the release of unjustly detained Americans overseas, Lankford told Tillerson.

Lankford served as the director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center for 13 years before his 2010 election to the House. He won election to the Senate in 2014. Lankford is a member of Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.