It is a new day for international religious freedom. Today, the U.S. Department of State kicks off the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The three-day summit brings together leaders from more than 80 foreign governments, representatives from non-profit organizations, religious leaders, grassroots activists, and hundreds of civil society partners. The singular focus: to promote and protect religious freedom around the world.
The Ministerial arrives at a critical time. A recent study from the Pew Research Center reveals that restrictions on religion around the world are on the rise, with one-third of the population surveyed living in places with high or very high levels of persecution. Some of those people are victims. Others are perpetrators. Far too many stand idly by while their neighbors’ most basic human rights are violated.
In China, for example, innocent Muslims are held in prison camps for praying. In Iraq, Yezidi women remain enslaved by brutal ISIS terrorists. Scores of Christian churches in Sudan have been shut down under false pretenses of building code violations.
Beyond the obvious violations against freedom of worship, a lack of religious freedom has broader implications, affecting issues like food security and treatment of women. In Nigeria, for example, Boko Haram first pushed Christians and then Muslims off their farms because of their beliefs. Now, extreme food insecurity impacts the entire region. In Burma, a Buddhist nationalist-backed army is attacking Rohingya Muslims and Kachin Christians. The religiously and ethnically motivated violence — which often includes rape as a weapon of war — is among the most egregious human rights crises of our time.
Despite these and other terrible stories of persecution, there is hope. The Ministerial that convenes in Washington, D.C. today is testimony to the growing number of people awakening to the cherished importance of religious freedom. U.S. leadership in this effort is critical, and State Department officials are hopeful the Ministerial will set the tone for positive engagement with those who stand in support of international religious freedom and against oppressive state and non-state actors.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirmed this view in a recent interview: “Religious freedom is important for every citizen around the world and we want to bring everyone together to discuss how all faiths have the right — people, individuals — have the right to worship in the way that they choose, or if they choose not to. And every country ought to honor that.”
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has made it clear that the Ministerial will not be just a “talk shop.” Participating governments will be challenged to make new commitments that advance international religious freedom. Civil society groups and religious leaders will share expertise and best practices to link efforts and integrate with existing government policies and programs. And on the sidelines, many NGOs (including 21Wilberforce) will host a variety of workshops, panel discussions, and lectures aimed at expanding the IRF conversation to a broader audience.
We’ll have just three days here, but this will be a mission of the State Department every day
Securing religious freedom is a long game, and this week’s Ministerial is poised to provide some strategic gains. “We’ll have just three days here,” noted Secretary Pompeo. “But this will be a mission of the State Department every day.” Still, more committed players are needed — the church and private citizens — to ensure that this week’s activities are the starting line, not a finish line.
1. Pray for participants of this week’s Ministerial, that this would be a launching point for a transformation in religious freedomTake Action