For better or worse, we live in a profoundly connected world. If there was any doubt about this, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided new evidence that what happens in one place can have dramatic effects in another. This global health crisis has prompted a massive response of governments and civil society around the world as they seek to slow and eventually stop the spread of this destructive virus, while in many cases creating crises of another sort.
There is another movement underway to slow and ultimately stop the spread of a different kind of destructive virus: that of religious persecution and repression.
The scale of the problem is staggering. “In many places of the world individuals have become more familiar with religious oppression than they are with religious freedom,” said Sam Brownback, United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on the release of the latest Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.
According to the latest figures from the Pew Research Center, 83 countries, with a combined population in excess of 6 billion people, have high or very levels of restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion.
While these realities may not impact every individual or community in the same way, they often target the most vulnerable, particularly religious minorities, non-believers, converts from the majority religion, and those who otherwise dissent from or reject the religious establishment.
Far more coordination is necessary to reduce religious persecution and promote religious freedom for all people.
What is religious freedom? Grounded in the dignity of every human person, religious freedom includes “the right of all persons to believe, speak, and act – individually and in community, in private and in public – in accord with their understanding of ultimate truth.”
As articulated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, core international covenants such as Article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and contemporary research, religious freedom is understood to be a fundamental human right, the cornerstone of a successful society, and a source of national and international security.
While religious freedom was included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it was the passage of the United States International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 that ushered in significant attention to the status of religious freedom around the world. IRFA made it the policy of the United States “to condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion.”
The act created a new position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, an office within the State Department mandated to develop an annual report on the status of religious freedom in every country, and an independent Commission, among a host of other tools, including a special adviser on international religious freedom at the National Security Council, which was recently filled for the first time with the appointment of Sarah Makin.
These efforts were strengthened in a recent Executive Order 13926 which mandates new resources for religious freedom promotion efforts and states as policy, “Religious freedom, America’s first freedom, is a moral and national security imperative. Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom.”
While the United States was the first to create an international religious freedom policy as such, it is no longer alone in this endeavor. In the more than twenty years since IRFA was enacted, more than two dozen countries have developed various positions and policies dedicated to addressing religious freedom.
Many of these new efforts are described in a Religious Freedom Institute report, "Surveying the Landscape of International Religious Freedom Policy." In the report I co-authored with Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom, and Thomas Farr, the first Director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, we provide a survey of the policy, advocacy, and programming activities of 18 countries and five multilateral bodies that seek to advance religious freedom.
The report was launched at the beginning of the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the ministerial was the largest human rights ministerial ever held at the State Department. The 2020 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom is scheduled to be hosted in Warsaw, Poland.
Momentum is growing around the issue. In September 2019, the Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom was held at the United Nations General Assembly. President Donald Trump hosted this first-of-its-kind event, which included UN Secretary General António Guterres alongside Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary Pompeo.
The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB) has nearly 300 members from almost 100 countries committed to combatting religious persecution and promoting freedom of religion.
And in February, the International Religious Freedom Alliance was launched with a declaration of principles proclaiming, “The Alliance is a network of likeminded countries fully committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief around the world.” With more than 25 countries in its initial membership, “the Alliance is predicated on the idea more must be done to protect members of religious minority groups and combat discrimination and persecution based on religion or belief.” Through the alliance, the member countries are working to coordinate actions to promote religious freedom.
As is seen in what Isaac Six termed a “Religious Freedom Revolution,” progress is not solely the domain of government actions but is being driven by a host of non-government actors, too. Through initiatives like the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, there is a growing global network of individuals and organizations, from every religious tradition and none at all, advocating not just for their own religious freedom, but for the religious freedom of everyone.
As I testified during a recent Congressional hearing, much remains to be done despite the notable progress made in recent years. The threats to religious freedom are many, including technology-enabled state repression of religion, non-state violence aided by inept governance, and blasphemy and apostasy laws that are regularly weaponized against religious minorities or dissenters.
Success in confronting any of these trends of persecution will require new forms of cooperation. Thankfully, we are beginning to see signs that such vital cooperation is possible.
Jeremy P. Barker is Director, Middle East Action Team and Senior Program Officer for the Religious Freedom Institute. The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) works to secure religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. RFI is a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C.