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We’re seeing bipartisanship in action on global religious freedom

Associated Press/Alex Brandon
Members of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement protest China’s treatment of Uyghurs, during a protest near the State Department, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, in Washington.

This week, political and religious leaders from around the world will descend on the nation’s capital to attend the second annual International Religious Freedom Summit. The IRF summit is the largest civil society-led conference in the world focused on advancing international religious freedom. The summit highlights the remarkable bipartisanship that has characterized the growth of the international religious freedom movement over the last 25 years.

The IRF summit is co-chaired by the former Republican-appointed ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and former Democratic-appointed U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chair Katrina Lantos Swett. Speakers include the current Biden-appointed ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Rashad Hussain, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Leaders who are often seen as political opponents frequently become allies when it comes to advancing religious freedom outside of the United States.

Bipartisan cooperation among American politicians has produced real results for the international religious freedom movement since the unanimous International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Just this past year, Congress has enacted major legislation with overwhelming agreement advancing international religious freedom, including the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the permanent reauthorization of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly reaffirmed the designation of genocide declared by Pompeo for China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China.  

Such unity is particularly important today, with the persecution of religious minorities reaching record levels around the world. Just last year the U.S. government officially recognized religiously-based genocide not just in China but also in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslims, who have suffered unimaginable atrocities since the Tatmadaw’s coup in February 2021. In Afghanistan, religious minorities are facing genocidal conditions since the withdrawal of the U.S. military. Violence against Muslims and Christians in India continues to rise, and Indian states continue to pass laws making it difficult to convert from one religion to another. And Sub-Saharan Africa has become the world’s new center for terrorist attacks inspired by the ideology of the Islamic State, severely endangering religious minorities in the region. 

Survivors of persecution will share their stories at the IRF Summit — people like Ren Ruiting, whose church in China, the Early Rain Covenant Church, was shut down by the Chinese Communist Party. Its pastor was arrested and is still in detention. After months of harassment from the police, Ruiting finally fled China. 

Or Mariam Ibraheem, who was sentenced to death and forced to give birth while in a prison in Sudan because she was a Christian. She now advocates for the rights of Christians facing similarly unjust accusations in Sudan. 

Or Nury Turkel, the new chair of USCIRF, who began life in a Chinese re-education camp because he and his family were Uyghur Muslims.

The harrowing circumstances these survivors faced are so appalling that they unite people from every background to stand up for freedom. While some regions, like portions of the European Union, have begun to shy away from recognizing the widespread problem of religious persecution, the U.S. continues to be a place where there’s a broad consensus that religious persecution worldwide should be confronted.

This broad unity doesn’t mean that controversies don’t arise. Blinken’s removal of Nigeria from the U.S. government list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom last year caused an uproar in the international religious freedom community, with the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stating it was “appalled” at the decision. Recent attacks in Nigeria, such as the brutal lynching of Christian college student Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu and the massacre of dozens of Catholics celebrating Pentecost in Owo, have reignited calls for the U.S. to recognize the religious persecution occurring in the country. The bishop of the churches attacked will be among the speakers at the IRF Summit this week.

But even as the U.S. response to persecution worldwide often falls short, what is still remarkable is the extent of bipartisan and civil society dedication to furthering the rights of individuals around the world to choose and live in accordance with their religious beliefs. Instances of collaboration across the aisle to address areas of common concern are too rare at present, but this week’s International Religious Freedom Summit will give a glimpse of what is still possible — and, on this issue, desperately needed. 

Only by efforts at every level of governance and society to combat religious persecution will we truly see freedom secured around the world.

Kelsey Zorzi is president of the United Nations’ NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and director of advocacy for global religious freedom for ADF International. Her writings have appeared in several outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and RealClear. Twitter: @KelseyZorzi. 

Tags Antony Blinken International Religious Freedom International Religious Freedom Act Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Nancy Pelosi Politics of the United States Sam Brownback United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

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