America is taking action on international religious freedom

America is taking action on international religious freedom
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Last week the State Department issued its annual report on International Religious Freedom (IRF). The report is a sobering reminder that religious freedom in our world today is under attack and that continued American leadership is crucial.    

The IRF report offers a comprehensive, country-by-country assessment of the state of religious freedom throughout the world. This year's report calls out abuses such as the criminal detention of religious figures in Saudi Arabia and Turkey as well as North Korea and Iran. Historic violators of religious freedom like Russia and Cuba are joined by Venezuela in placing obstacles on the activities of religious groups. The report makes special note of the “(v)iolence, discrimination and harassment” experienced by religious minorities in Myanmar.

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Finally, there is the sad observation that Christians in Syria continue to suffer at the hands of non-state actors such as ISIS and Al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and that the few remaining Christians in Iraq endure abuse, harassment, and delays impeding their movement in and around Christian towns and limiting their economic opportunities. 

 

The IRF annual report is submitted to Congress by the State Department as mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). This year marks the 20th anniversary of IRFA. Passed with bi-partisan support, IRFA has been instrumental in ensuring the consideration and the promotion of religious freedom in the development and conduct of American foreign policy. 

Since IFRA’s passage, U.S. advocacy on behalf of international religious freedom has shined a spotlight on bad state actors, alerted the world community, and galvanized concern among lawmakers. But countries bent on oppressing religious communities continue to act with impunity. Fortunately, the current administration is committed to continuing to pressure leaders who tolerate or promote such oppression. Leading the effort is a longtime champion of international religious freedom, Sam Brownback. 

Confirmed in February as ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, Brownback has hit the ground running. At the release of the IRF annual report, Ambassador Brownback remarked that “one person’s bondage is another person’s burden to break." Consistent with this concern, Brownback personally met with and advocated on behalf of an American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, who has been imprisoned in Turkey for over 19 months on bogus charges of terrorism and espionage. Brownback's pledge of “very high-level U.S. government interest” until Brunson is released was echoed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE this past weekend.

In addition to advocating for a persecuted fellow American, Brownback understands that concern and compassion for those suffering religious persecution must be shown to other victims across the globe as well. During a recent trip to Bangladesh, for example, Ambassador Brownback spoke with Rohingya victims of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim people from the majority Buddhist country of Myanmar. Brownback is attentive to what is said to be the “world’s fastest growing refugee crisis,” noting with great sadness that every one of the randomly selected children he interviewed told him they had seen close family members either stabbed or shot or killed in front of them.  

Brownback’s is not a lone voice on behalf of the persecuted. The highest officials in the administration, including President Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo, are making the defense of religious freedom a policy priority. Their support for continued fact-finding, along with the imposition of punitive measures for offenses against religious freedom as envisioned in IRFA, is complimented by their commitment to promote religious pluralism. 

At the release of the IRF annual report, Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the State Department will host the first-ever meeting of its kind to advance religious freedom later this summer. The hope is to bring together officials from like-minded governments and representatives from international organizations, religious communities, and civil society to reaffirm the commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. According to Pompeo, “It will not just be a discussion group.  It will be about action.” 

Effective international action to stop religious persecution and discrimination requires active U.S. leadership. The administration’s continued strong commitment is welcome news to oppressed people around the world.  

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.