Will religious freedom play on the world stage?
Religious freedom made an appearance on the world stage, at the opening of the 74th United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. In his keynote speech, President Trump issued a “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,” before an audience of more than 150 delegations, including the U.N. secretary-general and other heads of state.
But will religious freedom play the role that it deserves? Will its inherent value and strategic importance be appreciated?
The crisis should be evident: More than 1 million Muslims are held in concentration camp-like conditions in China. More than 750,000 Rohingya are in desperate conditions after fleeing brutal atrocities by the Burmese military and an increasingly violent ethno-religious nationalism. In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis and tens of thousands of the drastically shrinking Christian community are still at risk, most unable to return home five years after suffering genocide at the hands of ISIS, underscoring that religious persecution happens at the hands of both state and non-state actors.
Beyond these particular cases, the data show the scale of the problem. The Pew Research Center documents that, as of 2017, 83 countries (42 percent) have severe government restrictions or social hostilities toward religious beliefs and practices. These countries account for more than 6.3 billion people, or 83 percent of the world’s population. Religious restrictions and social hostilities are global phenomena that are becoming ever more evident in high-population countries like China, India, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Yet, perhaps more troubling, a trend analysis of the last 10 years of Pew’s research shows restrictions on religion have worsened in every region. While the Middle East remains the highest overall, some of the sharpest increases are in other regions, including Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
While the problems are worsening, there is a growing movement of both civil society and government initiatives dedicated to illuminating and addressing the problem and that recognize the power of religious freedom to promote security and human flourishing.
“Surveying the Landscape of International Religious Freedom Policy,” a new report from the Religious Freedom Institute, documents the efforts of 23 governmental and multilateral bodies to advance religious freedom.
Perhaps the most evident sign of momentum is the U.S.-led Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Held for the first time in 2018, the July 2019 ministerial, hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback, was the largest religious freedom event of its kind, including more than 100 official delegations and more than 1,000 NGOs and religious leaders.
In recent years, a number of countries have created new positions to focus on freedom of religion. The United Kingdom recently appointed Rehman Chishti as Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, expanding on the prior work of Lord Ahmad. While primarily led by western countries, even places like Taiwan and Mongolia have started to devote resources to the issue.
And this year, on Aug. 22, the United Nations observed its first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.
Despite these important signs of momentum, they have largely remained outside the mainstream of major policy initiatives, either bilateral or multilateral.
For religious freedom to take hold, more than rhetorical condemnations of terrorist groups that engage in violent acts of persecution will be required. Religious-freedom diplomacy should demand adoption of religious freedom goals in states where terrorism is incubated, especially authoritarian regimes that oppress religious minorities and majorities alike, including those who are U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and India. Religious freedom supports, and is supported by, other political freedoms. When those freedoms are threatened, religious freedom is also threatened.
In order to succeed, international religious freedom diplomacy will require moral arguments grounded in the equal dignity of every person, as well as strategic arguments. Religious persecution retards economic development, increases social instability and feeds violent religious extremism. On the other hand, religious freedom increases prosperity, reduces instability and undermines violent extremism. Developing the institutions and habits of religious freedom is a powerful but underused weapon in the diplomat’s toolkit.
The United States has employed both moral and strategic arguments, thanks in large part to the leadership of Ambassador Brownback. But the progress is, at times, undercut by contradictions in other areas of this administration, such as when refugees and asylees, some of whom are fleeing horrific forms of religious persecution, are demeaned, denied asylum and sent back, or when resettlement programs are effectively shut down or authoritarian regimes are given a pass.
Nevertheless, thanks to this administration, the battle for religious freedom is moving from the periphery to the center of the world stage. The question is, who will join the fight?
Jeremy P. Barker is senior program officer and director of the Middle East Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute, a Washington-based organization which promotes liberty for all religions as a human right, the basis of successful societies and a national security issue. Follow him on Twitter @jaybark7