In the final days of July, the 21Wilberforce team participated in an historic event, which could prove to be a watershed moment for international religious freedom. Hosted by the U.S. Department of State, we attended the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. During this three-day gathering, diplomats from across 80 nations joined over 300 leaders from around the world to affirm religious freedom as a fundamental right in the face of social and governmental hostilities, globally. Among the most rewarding moments for many Ministerial participants was when activists from Nigeria, Iraq, China and elsewhere expressed thanks for our on-going collaboration and partnership with them.
It was only a few years ago when many of us wondered how religious freedom momentum could be revived. The topic had slipped into low priority status at the U.S. State Department, despite the fact that over three-quarters of the world lived under some form of religious suppression. Even more daunting, it had become a virtual non-issue for people of faith in the United States, across the board among denominations and other faith-based networks.
Yet, it is striking how quickly things can change, even jolt forward, because of the focused efforts of well-organized groups, in this case led by Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback at the U.S. State Department. Social change is often jump-started by handfuls of intentional people and the tipping-point moments they generate, like this Ministerial. Once catalyzed, the real trick is seizing the moment or risk losing out to the status quo once again. We now stand on the cusp of a potentially dramatic shift if we can grab hold of the newly created momentum.
Social change is often jump-started by handfuls of intentional people and the tipping-point moments they generate
In that spirit, former Congressman Frank Wolf gave a keynote address, delivering one of the strongest and most impassioned talks of the conference, both deeply personal and collectively challenging. (Rightly, he was introduced as the “movement godfather.”) Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo and others reaffirmed America’s commitment to religious freedom, inviting other leaders to do the same.
Survivors of persecution and their families delivered powerful testimonies. They told stories of bravery under extreme circumstances in North Korea, Iran, China, Iraq and other places. The daughter of American Pastor Andrew Brunson spoke about her father’s unjust imprisonment in Turkey. The very next day, Pastor Brunson was released into house arrest, which, while not enough, was a positive step after more than 20 months of Turkish imprisonment. His story reminds us of the hundreds of thousands of unnamed people incarcerated for their faith — sitting in “re-education” camps, in solitary confinement, in forsaken prisons across the world — which is an insidious human rights tragedy of our generation.
Help move the movement forward. Begin by learning more about the resources generated by the Ministerial (a few are listed below) that challenge the status quo of injustice suffered by people of faith worldwide.
1. Read the Potomac Declaration and Potomac Plan of Action, announced at the Ministerial — a key statement on international religious freedom and an action plan for next steps
2. Learn about Boldline — a newly minted program from the State Department that fosters public-private partnerships to promote innovations on religious freedom
3. Watch former Congressman Frank Wolf’s impassioned speech at the MinisterialTake Action