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State Department Conference Aims To Identify Victims Of Religious Persecution


Victims of religious persecution from across the world are here in Washington this week for a State Department conference on religious freedom. Now, one goal of the conference is to get victims to identify with people who have experienced similar persecution. Some of those visitors toured the Holocaust Museum yesterday, and NPR's Tom Gjelten went with them.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Holocaust Museum in Washington tells the story of Nazi persecution and murder from the beginning. Museum guide Alfred Menzer, himself a Holocaust survivor, is leading a tour with about a dozen people, all victims of persecution themselves, from Sudan, Eritrea, China and other places. He explains that Jews at the Auschwitz concentration camp were separated. Those unsuitable for slave labor, his two sisters included, were killed. Those who could work survived for a time.

ALFRED MENZER: We're now in an actual barracks from Auschwitz - terrible conditions, up to eight people sleeping on every level, no blankets, not even some straw to soften the bunks.

GJELTEN: Menzer goes on to explain how Jews reacted once they saw what was going on.

MENZER: When you're persecuted like that, you want to leave, right? You want to find a new place. And so we have the first refugee crisis, if you will.

GJELTEN: This point resonates with Helen Berhane, arrested in Eritrea as a Bible teacher and subjected to torture. She says refugees flee because they're desperate. And she wants people to understand the trauma that haunts them.

HELEN BERHANE: Culture trauma, about food, trauma, language trauma, new environment - so I think people must understand better to help those people and to integrate them.

GJELTEN: Berhane eventually found asylum in Denmark. In the United States, refugee admissions are at the lowest level in decades. A group of refugee resettlement organizations on Monday said the best way the U.S. can address religious persecution is by being more welcoming. Sam Brownback is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and the host of this week's conference.


SAM BROWNBACK: I think that's a legitimate discussion, and I'm glad that people are going to be here and talking about that. You know, what we're talking about is trying to get countries themselves to stand by and to allow religious freedom in that nation.

GJELTEN: That would include countries like China, which has imprisoned more than a million Uighur Muslims, among them Ilham Tohti. His daughter, Jewher, was on the Holocaust Museum tour. She does not know where her father is.

JEWHER: It makes me wonder if my father is living - whether he is living in this condition or not and whether he is sleeping on one of those bunk beds.

GJELTEN: Among those glued to the Holocaust story was Farid Ahmed. He was among the Muslims attending Friday prayers at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand when a gunman entered and began shooting. Fifty-one people died, including Ahmed's wife. The hate, he says, is enormous.

FARID AHMED: I can't bear it. It is too painful. Every loss is painful, but I think that other pains are greater than my pain. So my heart goes for anyone who has suffered from persecution and cruelty. Any human being doesn't deserve this.

GJELTEN: Ahmed will be speaking at this week's conference, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.