ROME (CNS) — Efforts to protect men, women and children suffering religious persecution and to promote respect for religious freedom globally is “a top priority for the United States,” said a State Department official.

Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, told journalists in Rome May 23 that the protection of religious minorities, especially in areas of conflict, has and continues to be a key concern.

Thames met earlier in the day with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches, and Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, undersecretary for relations with states in the Vatican Secretariat of State, to “discuss the situation of Eastern churches and to find ways to protect their member’s rights.”

“The Vatican’s perspective is uniquely placed,” he said, adding that he met with Cardinal Sandri to “hear his views regarding his flock” and “to find ways to help religious minorities, particularly in Iraq.”

“Protecting religious minorities who have fled their countries,” he said, is the first step in the U.S. government’s approach to confronting religious persecution.

The United States also hopes to equip governments with the tools necessary to protect religious minorities and it applies pressure on countries with restrictive laws and practices so that religious minorities “are able to practice their faith freely and peacefully,” he said.

Education, especially “Catholic teachings on the protection of conscience,” is also important in promoting respect for different viewpoints and “a general commitment to help everyone.”

Thames said another important solution in helping religious minorities, especially in Muslim-majority countries, is the adoption of the Marrakesh Declaration.

The Marrakesh Declaration was the result of a three-day conference hosted by Moroccan King Muhammad VI, which gathered 300 Muslim scholars and 50 non-Muslim religious leaders in January.

The document promotes the concept of a “shared citizenship” and affirms that “it is unconscionable to employ religion for the purpose of aggressing upon the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.”

“It is an important step forward” in reframing the discussion on the protection of religious minorities from an Islamic perspective and offers a peaceful framework in reforming laws that restrict religious freedom, Thames said.

“What happens in Marrakesh shouldn’t stay in Marrakesh,” he said.