The US can provide the leadership needed for a faith fractured world
The historic meeting between Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf earlier this week augurs well for a new era of cooperation of people of different faiths against religious persecution. The interaction between the two faith leaders is a positive continuation of the Abraham Accords, which make it clear that faith must not be the basis of conflict
The United States must make the defense of religious freedom and the countering of violent extremism a cornerstone in its efforts to assert global leadership.
Defending religious freedom reflects America’s commitment to democracy and human rights. It could also unite Americans from the left and right of the political spectrum in upholding a core American value.
Robust defense of religious freedom would rally America’s values-based allies at a time when minority faith groups are under pressure across the world. Anti-Semitic incidents have increased, with rising attacks on Jewish synagogues and cemeteries across Europe.
In China, Uyghur Muslims face genocide. Christians in Africa, Middle East, China, North Korea and South Asia face violence, repression and restrictions on missionary activity. Bahais and Jews are targeted in Iran, Ahmadis and Hindus are persecuted in Pakistan, and few countries fulfill their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As majoritarianism and ethnic attacks become a global challenge, Americans should be reminded that the United States was one of the first countries to enshrine separation of church and state in its constitution. The First Amendment, ratified in 1791, defined the freedom of all individuals and communities to believe and practice any religion, or to have no religion at all.
Americans were guaranteed the right to worship freely, individually, or collectively and to observe their faith, whatever it might be, at a time when most governments played an active role in establishing a state religion. Through much of our history, Americans have understood the need to stand up for the rights of all faith communities, not just our own.
In recent years, increasing division and polarization has resulted in less acceptance of other faiths. The majority wants protection of their co-religionists abroad but remains reluctant to recognize that only by protecting freedom for others do we ensure freedom for ourselves.
But the U.S. is in a unique position to lead the world in demanding that laws discriminating against religious minorities should be rescinded. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights must be implemented by all countries in letter in spirit.
That article promises everyone “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” including “freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act made it U.S. policy to “condemn violations of religious freedom and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion.” It also restricted U.S. security and development aid to governments that are engaged in gross violations of the right to freedom of religion. The institutions and office created by the International Religious Freedom Act have often been subservient to other, more pressing, strategic concerns of the United States. But in the current global environment, the U.S. would gain greater moral authority by making religious freedom a strategic priority.
According to a report by the Pew Research Center, in 2018, “the global median level of government restrictions on religion — that is, laws, policies and actions by officials that impinge on religious beliefs and practices — continued to climb, reaching an all-time high.” The report also found incidents of harassment against religious groups in 90 percent of countries (185 out of 198.)
Christians and Muslims are the two faith groups that bear the brunt of global religion-based harassment or persecution. Prioritizing religious freedom as a strategic concern would create global allies for the United States, just as shared concern about communism brought millions of people together during the Cold War.
Within the U.S., many advocates of international religious freedom are religious conservatives concerned about protecting fellow Christians in other countries. They could find common cause with liberals concerned about human rights of minorities in the U.S. and abroad.
As the U.S. starts to recover from four years of intense polarization, we could learn from interfaith efforts, which have promoted cooperation and constructive engagement across faiths, sometimes even in war zones.
For example, religious leaders of the Catholic Church, Islamic Community, Serbian Orthodox Church and the Jewish community in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been working together to heal the wounds inflicted by the communal massacres and atrocities of the 1992-95 civil war.
In Israel, several institutions make an extra effort to enable Jews, Muslims, and Christians to observe their respective faith traditions. This sometimes involves Christians and Muslims performing duties on the Jewish sabbath and Jews working on Christian or Muslim holidays.
Various faith traditions in the U.S., too, could bring Americans together by emphasizing the need to accept, rather than fight over, differences. U.S. leadership in support of global freedom of religion globally would carry more weight by showing that Americans care for the principle of religious liberty, not just the defense of specific faith traditions.
Farahnaz Ispahani is a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Member, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Taskforce on Middle East Minorities. She has served as a member of the Pakistani parliament.