WASHINGTON (BP) — Religious liberty advocates drew hope from a first-ever international gathering of government officials, civil society representatives and faith leaders to promote the freedom of all people to practice their beliefs.
The U.S. State Department convened the inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom July 24-26 in Washington, hosting delegations from more than 80 governments in an effort to combat persecution of and discrimination against people of all faiths. On the meeting’s final day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the event would be held again next year.
The conference included addresses by Vice President Mike Pence and other U.S. officials as well as testimonies from persecution survivors and equipping sessions for civil society organizations.
The event also produced both a declaration and a plan of action on international religious freedom.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was encouraged at how the event “evidenced the work of Ambassador [Sam] Brownback and his team of dedicated public servants to raise the profile of religious freedom as a foreign policy priority,” Travis Wussow said, referencing Brownback, ambassador at large for international religious freedom in the State Department.
“Baptists have always been at the forefront of insisting that religious freedom is not legislative grace — something that can be dispensed with and withdrawn by the government — but is instead an inalienable right recognized by government,” Wussow, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, said in written comments.
“After a week with men and women from over 80 countries, I’m pleased to see these same arguments being marshaled from all corners of the globe with the hope that religious freedom will be recognized by governments worldwide.”
Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), lauded Brownback and other State Department officials, saying they had “pulled off a diplomatic coup, not only in convening, but in exhorting, educating, and persuading.”
“Nothing approximating this high-level foreign policy gathering on religious freedom has ever happened before,” Farr said in a written statement. “The United States must lead this new multinational coalition and begin the process of changing things on the ground.
“With this Vice President, this Secretary of State, and this Ambassador, I believe the stars are aligned actually to reduce persecution and advance international religious freedom,” Farr said.
Brownback and Pompeo both expressed delight with the ministerial’s results.
Brownback described the event as “a spectacular success” and “a launch of an alliance with governments, with nonprofit, with faith community people.”
“I really think we’re at a moment where the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down, and that you’re going to see a burst of freedom — of religious freedom around the world — taking place,” Brownback said at a July 26 news conference.
Pompeo said on the event’s final day, “As the first-ever event of its kind, we didn’t know exactly what the response would be. The reaction has, indeed, been overwhelmingly positive.”
The United States has given increased attention to global religious liberty the last two decades. This year marks the 20th anniversary of enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act, which established the ambassador at large and Office of International Religious Freedom in the State Department. It also created the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which tracks the status of religious liberty worldwide and issues reports to Congress, the president and the State Department.
The Ministerial came only a month after the Pew Research Center showed restrictions on religion continue to increase. In its June 21 report based on 2016 numbers, Pew found 83 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high or very high religious restrictions. That is a 4 percent increase over the previous year.
All religious groups were affected by the increase in hostilities, according to Pew. Christians and Muslims, the world’s two largest religious groups, were the most widely targeted groups in 144 and 142 countries, respectively.
While the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom consisted of three days of official sessions, organizations sponsored nearly 20 related events surrounding those hosted by the State Department, according to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable. On July 26, the ERLC and RFI — joined by Boat People SOS — hosted a discussion of religious freedom in Southeast Asia.
The ministerial produced various statements designed to further religious liberty:
— The Potomac Declaration, which asserts: “Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith. Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.”
— The Potomac Plan of Action, which calls on governments to protect all religious adherents, to condemn violence and discrimination against a religion, to revoke anti-blasphemy laws and to guard against genocide and ethnic cleansing.
— Statements of Concern on three issues — blasphemy/apostasy laws, religious liberty abuses by terrorist groups and religious freedom violations in the guise of counterterrorism — and three countries — Burma, China and Iran. As few as three countries and as many as 24 countries signed on to the statements with the United States.
In his July 26 speech to the gathering, Pence announced two new initiatives: The Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, as well as the International Religious Freedom Fund.
Under the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Program, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development will collaborate to provide aid quickly to persecuted communities, starting with those affected in Iraq by the terrorist campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The International Religious Freedom Fund will support religious liberty initiatives and provide assistance to victims of religious discrimination or violence through donations from governments and other entities. The U.S. government will cover all personnel, administrative and overhead costs.
“To all the victims of persecution who are here with us today, many of whose stories I’ve had the opportunity to tell and those that I have not, know this: We are with you,” Pence said. “The people of the United States are inspired by your testimony and your strength and your faith. And it steels our resolve to stand for your religious liberty in the years ahead.
“Here, in America, believers of all backgrounds live side by side, adding their unique voices to the chorus of our nation, proving that religious freedom means not only the right to practice one’s faith; it lays a foundation for boundless opportunity, prosperity, security and peace,” he said.
Pompeo announced three other efforts in his July 26 speech: 1) The International Visitor Leadership Program, 10 days of equipping in the United States for overseas religious freedom activists; 2) a three-day workshop in October to support public-private alliances for the promotion of religious liberty; and 3) regional follow-up conferences hosted by various countries.