Politics & Policy

The Religious-Freedom Revolution

Pope Francis greets faithfuls as he arrives to lead a Holy Mass at Freedom Square in Tallinn, Estonia September 25, 2018. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
It is good news for people facing persecution around the world.

Even as the world, and Washington, D.C., has turned its attention to addressing the coronavirus, a slow but persistent revolution is underway in an area of policy that usually has flown under almost everyone’s radar. That issue is international religious freedom, or IRF, as we in the business call it, and the impact of this revolution could be felt for many years to come.

For most of the past decade, working on IRF in D.C. felt a bit like working on an important but obscure niche issue. A handful of dedicated individuals, groups, and government officials spent some time trying to find ways we could move the ball forward and address the egregious amounts of persecution taking place based on faith, but most of Washington went about its business without giving it a second thought.

This has changed radically, and for the better. The core group of individuals and organizations working on this has grown exponentially, and senior officials in the U.S. government, including in the White House, are engaged in ways not seen for many years.

Some of this is due to political changes, but in other cases high-profile imprisonments and violence have drawn greater attention than ever before. ISIS’s genocidal campaign across the Middle East targeting Yazidis and Christians shocked much of the world. For Americans, the imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey was a wake-up call to the kinds of religious persecution experienced by many around the globe.

The two biggest and most visible initiatives out of Washington, D.C., have been the launch of a new International Religious Freedom Alliance by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February, and the proliferation of international religious-freedom roundtables in more than two dozen countries. The first, if executed properly and with consistency, has the potential to have a far-reaching impact on the way governments treat the protection of religious freedom. The second may transform, and in some cases already is transforming, the cultural norms and societal acceptance of an issue that still garners skepticism, or even outright hostility, in much of the non-Western world.

Make no mistake: The challenges that lie ahead are incredible. As is oft-cited in the world of IRF, most of the world’s population (over 80 percent) lives in countries with high levels of government restrictions or social hostility toward religion. According to the Pew Forum’s latest research, “83 countries experienced high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion, from government actions or hostile acts by private individuals, organizations or social groups.” For Christian communities specifically, the Open Doors 2020 World Watch List shows few improvements for the estimated 260 million Christians at risk of facing high levels of persecution.

And yet, hope springs eternal. The efforts underway in Washington, D.C., and increasingly in the halls of power abroad, are unprecedented in the IRF arena. Behind closed doors, stories of incremental progress are being shared:

  • Stories of governments that once allowed, or still currently allow, egregious persecution reaching out to discuss ways they can improve their record.
  • News of religious prisoners of conscience released or conditions improved for prisoners who are being advocated for heavily in Washington and elsewhere.
  • Even representatives of certain faiths gathering in the same room to talk where just a few years ago interaction would have been unthinkable.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that this revolution in policy has bipartisan overtones. Without question, the Trump administration has prioritized the promotion of religious freedom to a degree not seen since the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. That bill, signed into law by President Clinton, turned the issue into a foreign-policy priority, albeit often nominal. Still, much of the legislation aimed at IRF today, such as the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act or H. Res 512, which calls for the repeal of blasphemy laws globally, has bipartisan support. Entities such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom must, despite some well-documented challenges, operate in a bipartisan fashion.

This bipartisan element is at once one of the most important elements of the revolution and perhaps its greatest challenge. Only time will tell to what extent all of these efforts will pay off, but without bipartisanship it will undoubtedly continue to wax and wane with the political tides.

The fact is, it may be decades before truly tectonic shifts take place in a world still largely closed to full freedom of religion. Yet for those of us who have invested many years into this issue, the iron is hot. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, and to seek bipartisan support wherever possible, if only for the sake of the hundreds of millions who have never before had the freedom to follow their conscience and choose their faith without fear. A nascent revolution is underway in international religious freedom, and we must not let it go by without doing our very best to make sure this revolution leads to lasting change.

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