UNITED NATIONS (AP) — President Donald Trump made his political priorities clear Monday within an hour of arriving at the United Nations for a three-day visit: He breezed by a major climate change summit to focus instead on religious persecution, an issue that resonates with his evangelical supporters.
The climate summit, a centerpiece of this year’s U.N. schedule, was not on Trump’s agenda at all. But he stopped in to observe for about 15 minutes before heading to what he saw as the main event, a meeting on protecting religious freedom.
Trump said it was an “urgent moral duty” for world leaders to stop crimes against faith, release prisoners of conscience and repeal laws restricting religious liberty.
“Approximately 80% of the world’s population live in countries where religious liberty is threatened, restricted or even banned,” Trump said, adding that when he first heard the statistic, he didn’t believe it and asked for verification.
Trump’s speech on Monday extends a long-running focus on international religious freedom that speaks to a key priority of his evangelical base. His administration has hosted annual meetings on the topic in Washington, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced during this year’s event that he would create an international alliance dedicated to the issue.
Underscoring the importance of Trump’s action on the issue to evangelical voters who are critical to his 2020 reelection bid, one prominent evangelical backer Dallas-based pastor Robert Jeffress lauded Trump for focusing on religious freedom instead of climate change.
“What president in history would have the guts to do what President Trump is doing?” Jeffress, who was set to be in the audience for Trump’s speech, said on Fox News. “And it’s this kind of leadership that is absolutely infuriating the president’s enemies, but it’s also energizing his base, especially his religious base of voters.”
Trump listed his administration’s efforts on religious freedom and declared, “We’ve done a lot.”
As for the climate summit, he told reporters as he left, “I’m a big believer in clean air and clean water and all countries should get together and do that, and they should do it for themselves. Very, very important.”