.- The release of three American prisoners from North Korea was hailed as an important first step in addressing abuses within the nation, as U.S. leaders call for a continued expansion of religious freedom initiatives in U.S. foreign policy.

The freed prisoners are expected to arrive in the U.S. early Thursday morning. They are accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had traveled to Pyongyang to finalized negotiations surrounding their release.

David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians, called news of the prisoner release “a great victory for these families and one critical step toward restoring diplomatic relations with North Korea.”

However, he cautioned, “To keep progressing, this first gesture of goodwill must now be followed by further actions to address the long-running, systematic human rights abuses that still plague the people of North Korea.”

The May 9 release of Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Dong-chul from North Korea comes as the U.S. government is looking to expand its promotion of religious freedom abroad through both economic development and security partnerships.

In a May 8 policy briefing at the U.S. House of Representatives Canon office, Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said that he had recently met with leaders in the Department of Defence and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to discuss the promotion of religious freedom in their fields.

Among the new developments, USAID will be adding a “religious freedom grid” as a part of the programs that it funds, according to Brownback, who also said that “we are training military leaders around the world on religious freedom.”

Browback’s pragmatic approach includes advancing an idea that religious freedom contributes to greater economic growth and security.

Read more at Catholic News Agency.