Updated: July 24, 2019 03:53 AM GMT
Last week, the State Department of the United States hosted the largest ever religious freedom gathering in the world. It was the biggest ever 'human rights' event per se to take place at its headquarters in Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC.
The brainchild of U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, the 'Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom' brought together more than 1,000 civil society and religious leaders and over 100 foreign delegations of ministers, ambassadors and policy-makers. Hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the event resulted in statements on religious freedom violations in China, Myanmar and Iran.
There were also statements on blasphemy and apostasy laws, protection of places of worship, counter-terrorism as a pretext for the repression of religious freedom, abuse of members of religions by non-state actors and the use of technology affecting religious freedom as well as respect for religious beliefs.
The gathering further resulted in the formation of an 'International Religious Freedom Alliance' bringing like-minded countries together to champion this basic human right.
The Ministerial, held for the second consecutive year after last year's inaugural event, gave a platform to survivors of religious persecution, from all faiths and from around the world, to address world leaders.
Participants heard from Jewher Ilham, daughter of jailed Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, Nadia Murad, a Yazidi survivor of the genocide inflicted in Iraq and Syria by Islamic State and Yamini Ravindran, a Sri Lankan advocate who spoke about the tragedy of the Easter Sunday church bombings. Also heard were the voices of Shaan Taseer, the son of the former governor of Punjab, who was assassinated by his bodyguard for criticizing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and Susanna Liew, wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, who was kidnapped over two years ago in Malaysia.
More than 80 side events were also organized, including many that focused on religious freedom issues in Asia.
See Pompeo’s remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom below in this video:
As if that was not enough, a delegation of persecution survivors met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, including former prisoner of conscience Helen Berhane from Eritrea, Rev. Mario Felix Lleonart Barroso from Cuba and, from Myanmar, Rev. Hkalam Samson, president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and Mobib Ullah, a Rohingya who fled the violence for the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Two things are abundantly clear from the Ministerial. The first is that the United States is prioritizing religious freedom in a way no previous administration has done. And the second is that, contrary to some perceptions, they really are defending religious freedom for everyone.
The Trump administration's base may be evangelical Christians, and key figures behind the Ministerial, such as Ambassador Brownback and Vice-President Mike Pence are associated with the so-called "Christian Right", but from their statements and the wide range of speakers invited, no one could accuse them of only being interested in the persecution of Christians.
As Secretary Pompeo said in his keynote address, "religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn't just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone's concern."
The Ministerial is the latest in a series of timely initiatives around the world designed to draw attention to the rise in religious persecution and intolerance. According to Pompeo, 83 percent of the world's population live in countries where religious freedom is either threatened or denied completely. On the first day of the Ministerial the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life released its annual report which found that 52 governments, including some in populous countries such as China, Indonesia and Russia, impose either "high" or "very high" levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007. The number of countries where people are experiencing the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion has risen from 39 to 56 over the course of the study.
The week before the Ministerial, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt released the report of an independent inquiry he commissioned into the persecution of Christians around the world, led by the Bishop of Truro, and twice this year Taiwan has hosted conferences on religious freedom addressed by the President of Taiwan Tsai Ingo-wen.
The European Union’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief Jan Figel and the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed have been increasingly active in drawing attention to the crisis in religious freedom around the world, and a growing number of countries now have special ambassadors dedicated to the issue.
Round-tables bringing together religious freedom advocates have been established in Abuja, Bogota, Brussels (EU), Geneva (U.N.), Khartoum, Kiev, New York (U.N.), Seoul, Taipei, and Turin, with more expected to follow in Bucharest, Budapest, Erbil, Jakarta, London, Mexico City, Paris, Ulaanbaatar and elsewhere.
Asia featured prominently in the Ministerial's agenda, not only with the number of speakers from countries in the region, but in the keynote speeches.
Vice-President Mike Pence drew attention to the violations of religious freedom in North Korea, China, Pakistan and Myanmar, calling for accountability for the perpetrators of crimes against the Rohingya and other religious and ethnic minorities. He argued that defending religious freedom is not only a moral duty, but a matter of self-interest too, because those governments that respect religious freedom have "ushered in important improvements in the lives of people all over the world …. Free minds build free markets. And wherever religious liberty is allowed to take root, it is prosperity and peace that ultimately flourish as well. And as we tell even our closest allies, those who reject religious freedom are more likely to breed radicalism and resentment; that it can sow those seeds of violence and it can too often cross borders. And those who deny religious freedom to their own people often have few qualms denying those rights to others."
Conferences and summits can't resolve the deeply entrenched and widespread crisis of religious persecution around the world by themselves, but they can help inspire action, both by governments, civil society and religious leaders. The U.S. State Department is to be applauded for holding a Ministerial on this key human rights issue not once but twice, on initiating networks around the world, and on raising the profile of this oft-forgotten and yet widely violated fundamental right. There is much more to be done, and the test will be how governments match their motivational words with concrete actions, at home and abroad. But in taking a lead, the United States has sent a clear signal — and it is now time for others to follow.
See Pence’s remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom below in this video:
Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
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