The epicenter of advocacy for international religious freedom (IRF) has crossed the pond. Last week, the United Kingdom hosted the first in-person government ministerial on the issue to be held outside the United States.
Under the Trump administration, the US State Department inaugurated the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018. Reconvened in Washington in 2019, the following year the event moved to Poland which was forced to conduct proceedings online due to COVID-19. Pandemic distractions prevented Brazil from hosting the ministerial in 2021, but civil society and religious groups rallied to organize an IRF Summit in DC instead.
In 2020, 27 nations seized the ministerials’ momentum to create the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), centered around Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Declaring that “everyone has freedom to believe or not believe, to change faith, to meet alone for prayer or corporately for worship,” IRFBA has since grown to include 36 countries, an additional five national “friends,” and two observers—including the UN-designated special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), the preferred terminology for IRF in Europe.
As IRFBA chair, the UK hosted the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief on July 5–6 in London.
“Millions of people are being deprived an education or a job or a home or access to justice or liberty, even to life itself,” said Fiona Bruce, the UK prime minister’s special envoy for FoRB, “simply on account of what they believe.”
The UK demonstrated leadership on the issue in 2020, when as chair of the Group of Seven—a political forum of the world’s leading democratic economies—Britain secured the first-ever mention of FoRB as a priority within the G7 official communique.
“The ministerial helped create a heightened global consciousness on FoRB, a cornerstone of all human rights,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, ambassador for religious freedom for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “Where FoRB is violated, all other human rights suffer.”
Hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Center in Parliament Square, the 2022 ministerial’s remarks were delivered by Prince Charles of Wales and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spoke on behalf of Britain’s Jews.
Regional foreign minister Tarik Ahmed, a Muslim, delivered a statement welcoming to the ministerial 500 delegates from more than 100 countries. Sources told CT the UK did an exceptional job integrating the dozens of civil society and religious groups into the official proceedings.
With better coordination—and a wider berth from Americans’ July 4 observance of Independence Day—attendance might have been even larger. Only a few days before the UK ministerial…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 13, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
The US Department of State released its 2021 annual report on international religious freedom (IRF) last week, describing conditions in nearly 200 nations. Delivering remarks from the Benjamin Franklin room—where US ambassadors are sworn into service—Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented a litany of well-known offenders.
China, he said, continues its genocide against Uighur Muslims.
Saudi Arabia makes illegal the practice of any faith besides Islam.
Pakistan sentences people to death for blasphemy.
And Eritrea demands renunciation of faith to release the arrested members of religious minorities.
“Respect for religious freedom isn’t only one of the deepest held values and a fundamental right,” Blinken stated. “It’s also, from my perspective, a vital foreign policy priority.”
Last November, these four nations were among the 10 Blinken designated as countries of particular concern (CPC). A separate special watch list (SWL) listed four more: Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
But three days after the IRF report release, a terrorist attack in Nigeria highlighted its omission. Dozens of Christians were gunned down in a Catholic church on Pentecost Sunday. And one month earlier, a Christian college student was murdered by a mob over her alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Back in April, the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its own list of nonbinding CPC recommendations, reminding Blinken it was “appalled” at the omission of Nigeria. After listing Africa’s most populous nation as a CPC for the first time in 2020, the State Department removed…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on June 6, 2022. Please click here to read the full text.
Government restrictions on religion are at a global high.
Social hostility toward religion, however, is at its lowest level worldwide since ISIS.
So says data analyzed by the Pew Research Center in its 12th annual measurement of the extent to which 198 nations and territories—and their citizens—impinge on religious belief and practice.
The 2021 report, released today, draws primarily from more than a dozen UN, US, European, and civil society sources, and reflects pre-pandemic conditions from 2019, the latest year with available data.
Matching a peak from 2012, 57 nations (29%) record “very high” or “high” levels of government restrictions—an uptick of one nation from 2018. The global median on Pew’s 10-point scale held steady at 2.9, after a steady rise since the baseline of 1.8 in 2007, the report’s first year measured.
Regional differences are apparent: The Middle East and North Africa scored 6.0; Asia-Pacific scored 4.1; Europe scored 2.9; Sub-Saharan Africa scored 2.6; and the Americas scored 2.0.
But across the globe, restrictions are present.
Most common, according to Pew, is “government harassment of religious groups.” More than 9 in 10 nations (180 total) tallied at least one incident. Also common is “government interference in worship.” More than 8 in 10 nations (163 total) recorded incidents.
And nearly half (48%) of all nations used force against religious groups. China, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Sudan, and Syria tallied over 10,000 incidents each. For example, Pew noted…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on September 30, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
The world’s largest Muslim organization accepts that Christians will try to convert its members. A new partnership with evangelicals seeks to ensure this does not lead to conflict.
Last week, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) signed a statement of cooperation with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Indonesian association with an estimated 30 million to 50 million members. Established in 1926 to counter Wahhabi trends issuing from the Arabian Peninsula, its name means “Revival of the Religious Scholars.”
“Evangelicals very much aspire to proselytism, and so does Islam. So naturally there will be competition,” said NU secretary general Yahya Cholil Staquf. “But we need to have this competition conducted in a peaceful and harmonious environment.”
Staquf spoke from the stage of the 2021 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington. On its opening day, he and WEA secretary general Thomas Schirrmacher signed “The Nation’s Mosque Statement,” along with Taleb Shareef, imam of Masjid Muhammad, the first American mosque built by the descendants of slaves.
Calling for “the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order,” the statement seeks a global alliance to prevent the political weaponization of identity and the spread of communal hatred.
Schirrmacher called the WEA’s cooperation with NU the product of deep theological dialogue, counter to the academic tendency to downplay truth claims. And as evangelicals, evangelism is at the heart of their effort.
“We are working together for the right to convert each other,” the German theologian said. “Religious freedom does not mean that we agree, but that…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on July 22, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
One word floated forebodingly between parentheses throughout promotional material for the 2021 International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit:
Following the names of Nancy Pelosi, Antony Blinken, and Samantha Power, it indicated uncertainty if the key Democratic stalwarts would participate.
As the approximately 1,200 registered attendees arrived, the distributed official program still did not include the current House speaker, secretary of state, or USAID administrator.
However, Mike Pompeo, Blinken’s predecessor at the US State Department, had a keynote address from the stage.
“There were a lot of questions heading into this summit, with a lot of hesitancy from the Biden people,” summit co-chair Sam Brownback told CT. “But we worked hard to make it bipartisan.”
Unlike the previous two ministerialmeetings held in Washington, DC (and a third held virtually in Poland), this year’s IRF gathering was organized by civil society, not governments.
Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom during the Trump administration, was now a private citizen. He partnered with Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, who was appointed by former Democratic senator Harry Reid.
Brownback chased the Republicans, and Lantos Swett the Democrats. Their friendship, Pam Pryor, senior advisor to the summit, told CT, is the “gold standard” in bipartisan cooperation. In the end, Lantos Swett was relatively…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on July 19, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf kingdom “remains the only country in the world without a Christian church, though there are more than a million Christians living [there],” he stated yesterday.
Such high-level criticism of the key US ally is a departure from the foreign policy of the Trump administration, though the State Department has listed the oil-rich nation as a Country of Particular Concern on international religious freedom (IRF) since 2004.
Blinken also highlighted recent violations in Iran, Burma, Russia, Nigeria, and China. Positive developments were noted in Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
“Our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris administration will protect and defend religious freedom around the world,” stated Blinken, releasing the 23rd annual International Religious Freedom Report, assessing the records of nearly 200 countries and territories.
“We will maintain America’s longstanding leadership on this issue, [and] we’re grateful for our partners.”
He named several entities, but one is glaring in its absence:
The US Congress.
Six years ago, 21Wilberforce, a Christian human rights organization, launched the International Religious Freedom Scorecard to hold America’s lawmakers to account.
“There is much room for improvement,” Lou Ann Sabatier, director of communication, told CT. “It is a long and arduous process for an IRF bill to become a law, and many do not make it out of committee.”
The latest scorecard, released this week and grading the two-year term of the 116th Congress, lists 91 legislative efforts in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Only two became law. The daughter of one of Congress’s chief IRF champions is not happy…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on May 14, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
As a new administration takes over leadership of America’s commitment to religious freedom worldwide, Gayle Manchin believes President Joe Biden is “very aware” of its importance.
But given global developments, the watchdog work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which she chairs, sometimes feels like “treading water.”
Others agree. For example, an 800-page study released this week by Aid to the Church in Need concludes that 1 in 3 nations of the world do not respect religious freedom.
And in 95 percent of these, the situation is growing worse.
USCIRF, created to provide recommendations to the US government, released its 22nd annual report today. Its analysis identifies significant problems in 26 countries, down from 29 last year. It also marked a surge in worldwide antisemitism.
Following the commission’s advice, last December then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Burma [Myanmar], China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). USCIRF’s 2021 report recommends that new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken add…
Last year, Nigeria was added as a CPC by the State Department. How did USCIRF’s work contribute to the decision?
USCIRF has a unique ability to focus on religious freedom, while the State Department looks at the relationship with a country in balance. But they take our work very seriously, and know the research and credibility behind it. They watch, and when the information is overwhelming—and when they are comfortable—they will join us in a recommendation.
But I never question when they don’t. There may be details going on that we are not aware of.
So how do you interpret the State Department additions of Cuba and Nicaragua to the SWL? Maybe they are not the most egregious violators of religious freedom, compared to others on the USCIRF list?
Both of these countries are continuing to trend worse. When we are able to travel again, these are nations we will reach out to for a visit, to get a clearer picture of what is going on. There is always a political aspect, from the government’s perspective.
But now that Cuba is without a Castro for the first time, there are things happening that may change. Of course, it could also be toward the negative, so we will continue to monitor.
What nations generated the most controversy and discussion among USCIRF commissioners? …
This article was originally published at Christianity Today on April 21, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Sudan has taken another step toward religious freedom.
This time, it is a confirmation.
On Sunday, the joint military-civilian Sovereign Council signed a peace agreement with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), based in the Nuba Mountains, where there is a significant Christian population.
“Freedom of belief and religious practices and worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people,” stated the Declaration of Principles, “by separating the identities of culture, religion, ethnicity, and religion from the state.”
Prior to the revolution which overthrew 30-year dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, Sudan was governed by sharia law. It also imposed an Arab identity on its multiethnic population, contributing to longstanding conflict in Darfur.
The region’s Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), led by Abdel Wahed el-Nur, is now the last remaining rebel holdout.
Three other armed groups signed a peace deal last September. In February, these were integrated into an expanded Sovereign Council and afforded places in the still to be formed parliament. Abdelaziz al-Hilu, leader of the SPLM-N, refused to join without…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 30, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Sitting around a dinner table in a fancy restaurant, Talia is uncomfortably nervous. Her two colleagues in pristine attire anticipate a delicious meal—and then exult in the immaculate but meager portions provided them.
Earlier in the evening, the disappointed Talia had noticed a confused villager with a picnic basket ushered out of the establishment. Later, she peeks outside. Beckoned to join a family gathering, Talia discovers all the delight of nature on offer.
A new world had opened, wide and wild.
The fictional scene is a compelling metaphor for religious freedom.
“The idea was to move people from an awareness of scarcity to a desire for abundance,” said Shirin Taber, director of Empower Women Media (EWM), of the nine-minute Portions, produced by fellow Iranian American Naji Hendrix and Nancy Sawyer Schraeder.
“Short films can shift hearts, and after only a few minutes, rigid opinions begin to thaw.”
The key lies in storytelling, which Taber believes is a better method than the declarations and sanctions that have traditionally been tried to advance religious freedom in the Muslim world.
Rigid opinions thrive in confrontation.
“Many people are singing to the choir, but few come up with strategies that can actually move the needle,” she said. “And notably, they don’t include women.”
Her own story proves the difference. Taber’s commitment to religious freedom was developed early. Her Muslim father…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on March 29, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Last year, American support for religious freedom survived COVID-19.
The right to free speech held firm amid racial tensions.
And vigorous backing of the First Amendment endured a contentious presidential campaign.
So concludes the 2020 Becket Religious Freedom Index, which will monitor the resilience of the United States’ “first freedom” through the yearly challenges to come.
“Americans understand religion as a fundamental part of an individual’s identity,” said Caleb Lyman, director of research and analytics at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
“It is no surprise that they support strong religious freedom protections in work and public life.”
Designing 16 questions across six categories, the annual index measures perspectives on the First Amendment. Now in its second year, in October it polled a nationwide sample of 1,000 Americans, scoring their support from 0 (complete opposition) to 100 (robust support).
The composite score is 66, a statistically insignificant decline from 67 in 2019.
Becket’s report recognizes that the religious impulse is natural to human beings, and therefore religious expression is natural to human culture.
Through their law firm, they defend religious rights. Through their index, they discover if Americans agree…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on January 4, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.
Despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to prioritize the issue in its foreign policy, the Pew Research Center highlights that government restrictions on religion have hit an all-time high worldwide.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights included clear language on religious freedom, including the right to change one’s religious affiliation. But it was not until 1981 that the UN issued its Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.
Declarations are of little value without accountability.
In 1986, the UN created the position of Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB). And in 2006, it created a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in which nations report on their human rights development every 4.5 years and are required to address the recommendations of the global community.
Ahmed Shaheed, the current special rapporteur, was appointed in 2016 after serving six years as the UN human rights watchdog on Iran.
Formerly a foreign minister of the Maldives, Shaheed was declared an apostate from Islam in his home nation following his efforts to restore democracy and advance human rights.
Prior to this month’s third Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, CT interviewed Shaheed in April as COVID-19 upended the world about recent American efforts to advance international religious freedom (IRF), the balance involved with gender equality, and the best methods to secure the right to religious conversion in the Muslim world:
How has COVID-19 impacted global freedom of religion and belief?
The pandemic is unprecedented in how it is impacting everyone.
As special rapporteur, I have issued three statements so far. The first concerned the cremation of bodies of those who died from the virus—can it be made compulsory, and can relatives attend? Religious practices can be limited to some extent during a time of public health emergency, but I wanted to remind the authorities of their obligations under international law and to be respectful of religious and cultural beliefs within the law.
The second statement was on hate speech targeting minority Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They have been scapegoated and attacked with conspiracy theories claiming they are the ones who spread or even originated this virus. And besides scapegoating, in some cases they were denied access to health care facilities.
The third statement raised alarm specifically on anti-Semitism, which was spiking across the globe.
My statements also highlighted the role that faith-based communities can play at this critical time, in terms of virtual pastoral care and the preservation of community cohesion. And I have applauded how most religious leaders have responded to the humanitarian and socio-economic challenges we have witnessed.
Many American evangelicals have been supportive of the Trump administration’s advocacy for international religious freedom. From your perspective, has it created an atmosphere where there is greater worldwide respect and attention, or has it politicized the issue and been detrimental to the global cause?
I look at US policy in a comprehensive fashion, and not just the president’s remarks. The State Department’s IRF report—covering every nation in the world—and the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have played an invaluable role over the years. I’m happy that the Trump administration…
This article was originally published at Christianity Today, on November 16, 2020. Please click here to read the full text.
But for Durie, the issue is far greater than the right of one person to believe what they want – even as human rights always concern the individual, each and every one of which is sacred.
It is a lonely battle, he laments, though much depends upon it.
“This can be a disheartening, discouraging, and frustrating burden to carry,” he said. “But it is vitally important, not only for the believers themselves, but also for the health and honor of the whole world.”
THE social contract . . . limits on power . . . liberty of conscience . . . doctrine of toleration . . . human rights . . . Each is under attack around the world and Lord David Alton wants the government to do something about it.
The Independent Crossbench Peer has tabled a debate in the House of Lords this Thursday (16 July) to focus on the issue that underpins them all: religious freedom.
Alton has framed the debate to focus on the ‘clear links’ between freedom of conscience and both the prosperity of a nation and the litany of other rights its citizens enjoy.
It will also discuss ‘greater political and diplomatic priority’ in support of Article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of thought and religion.
One debate participant is Lord Jonathan Sacks, former UK Chief Rabbi. Addressing a UK-Israel policy conference in late June he noted that ‘wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas.’
And each of the above principles which shape the modern world, he said, ‘began life as religious ideas.’
Within the UK the debate over secularism may question the value of this assertion. But it is undeniable that international religious freedom has received greater attention across the political and social spectrum.
Richard Honess is a board member of Atheists Alliance International and the international liaison officer for Atheism UK. Dr David Landrum is the director of advocacy for the Evangelical Alliance.
Unlikely bed-fellows, both have spoken forcefully in support of religious minorities around the world.
‘The right to religious freedom is essential,’ Honess told Lapido. ‘All we ask is in return that atheists also have that same right, the right not to believe.’
Honess finds the UK guilty of privileging Christianity and believes the foundation of freedoms to be personal liberty under the law—not faith. He looks at Africa and the Islamic world and finds witch hunts against homosexuals and the lashing of dissidents in the name of religion.
‘The Atheist Alliance International will continue to lobby the EU and the UN,’ he said, ‘but this has to stop and I fear that we are long way from that.’
Landrum, on the other hand, released a report to Parliament detailing how UK Christians’ freedoms are ‘restricted’. But he sees religious liberty as receiving a far higher profile than it used to, driven by horrors witnessed in the Middle East.
‘We need to educate society about the value of religious freedom for all freedoms,’ he told Lapido, ‘and keep our politicians focused on persecuted minorities abroad.’
A growing and influential segment of these politicians sees this as their key mission. The All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief was formed in 2012, and is co-chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Berridge.
In addition to a host of Christian organisations, it is supported also by the British Humanist Association and Sikh, Bahai, and Ahmadiya Muslim groups.
‘The level of awareness and involvement among MPs on issues of international freedom of religion was higher in the last parliament than at any point in the past twenty years, and there is every evidence that this is just as true now,’ said Stephen Rand, advocacy consultant for Open Doors and web editor for the APPG.
The election manifestos of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, DUP, and Green parties all included language supporting religious freedom abroad.
‘But it is too early in the life of this government to judge whether the rhetoric will become reality,’ Rand added.
One sign of the rhetoric is the recent honour given to Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos, appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen for his services to international religious freedom.
‘Greater acknowledgment of this issue,’ Angaelos told Lapido, ‘is fitting within the UK’s understanding of what it means to safeguard human rights.’
It was ‘imperative’, he added, for both individuals and nations to protect them.
There are signs the UK government is getting the message.
According to the Pew Research Center, 76 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion.
The 2011 Foreign and Commonwealth Office Report on Human Rights and Democracy found that religious freedom was ‘crucial to ensuring conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding.’ It has since been updated to include ‘countries of particular concern’, numbering 27 in the most recent edition.
Put negatively, the June 2015 volume of the Harvard International Law Journal noted ‘nations that criminalise blasphemy tend to foster an environment where terrorism is more prevalent, legitimised, and insidious.’
The FCO report insists it is ‘important’ to secure religious freedom as part of the government’s ‘wider security agenda’.
The report was quoted in ‘Article 18: An Orphaned Right’, prepared by the APPG in 2013. It will form the basis of the coming House of Lords debate.
It also contains ten recommendations to the government on how to ‘mainstream’ a religious freedom approach into foreign policy.
One year later Baroness Warsi chaired the first meeting for the Foreign OfficeAdvisory Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, fulfilling recommendation three.
An additional three have been positively acted upon, with evidence suggesting all have been considered.
But is advice enough? Do reports translate into policy?
Lord Alton continues to push the debate. His own view is clear: ‘Countries have to make the cause of those who suffer for their religion or belief the great cause of our times,’ he wrote in GIS.
‘Christians, Jews and Muslims privileged to live in free societies have to challenge cold indifference and speak up and defend humanity.’