‘The iron is hot’—the telling signs of an International Religious Freedom revolution

April 7, 2020 by Isaac Six in Advocacy

Even as the world, and Washington, D.C., have turned their attention to addressing the coronavirus pandemic, a slow but persistent revolution is currently underway in an area of policy that has usually flown under almost everyone’s radar. That issue is international religious freedom, or IRF, as we in the business call it. And the impact of the revolution could be felt for many years to come.

For most of the past decade, working on IRF in D.C. felt a bit like working on an important but obscure niche issue. A handful of dedicated individuals, groups and government officials spent some time trying to find ways we could move the ball forward and address the egregious amounts of persecution taking place based on faith. But most of Washington, D.C., went about its business without giving IRF a second thought.

This has changed radically, and for the better. The core group of individuals and organizations working on IRF has grown exponentially, and senior officials in the U.S. government, including in the White House, are engaged in ways I haven’t seen in many years.

Some of this progress is due to political changes. Another factor is the high-profile imprisonments and violence that have drawn greater attention than ever before. ISIS’s genocidal campaign across the Middle East targeting Yazidis and Christians shocked much of the world. For Americans, the imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey was a wake-up call to the kinds of religious persecution that many people experience worldwide.

The two biggest and most visible initiatives out of Washington, D.C., include the launch of a new International Religious Freedom Alliance (announced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February) and led by Sam Brownback, US Ambassador at Large for International Freedom (pictured above); and the proliferation of international religious freedom roundtables in more than two dozen countries. The first initiative, if executed properly and with consistency, has the potential to make far-reaching impact on the way governments treat the protection of religious freedom. The second initiative may transform—and in some cases, already is transforming— the cultural norms and societal acceptance of an issue that still garners skepticism. Or even outright hostility, in much of the non-Western world.

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The iron is hot.

Make no mistake: the challenges that lay ahead are incredible. As is oft-cited in the world of IRF, most of the world’s population (more than 80 percent) live in countries with high levels of government restrictions or social hostility towards religion. According to the Pew Forum’s latest research, “83 countries experienced high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion, from government actions or hostile acts by private individuals, organizations or social groups.” For Christian communities specifically, Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List shows few improvements for the estimated 260 million Christians at risk of facing high levels of persecution.

And yet, hope springs eternal. The efforts underway in Washington, D.C., and increasingly in the halls of power abroad, are unprecedented in the IRF arena. Behind closed doors, stories of incremental progress are being shared. We’re seeing stories of governments that once allowed egregious persecution (or still currently do) reaching out to discuss ways they can improve their record. Reports are coming in of the release of religious prisoners of conscience or improved conditions for prisoners—believers whom national leaders in Washington and elsewhere are advocating for and supporting. Even representatives of certain faiths are gathering in the same room to talk; just a few years ago, that kind of interaction would have been unthinkable.

Perhaps most surprising is that this revolution in policy has bipartisan overtones. Without question, the Trump administration has prioritized the promotion of religious freedom to a degree not seen since the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. That bill, signed into law by President Clinton, turned the issue into an (often nominal) foreign policy priority. Still, much of the legislation aimed at IRF today, like the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act or H.Res 512, which calls for the repeal of blasphemy laws globally, has bipartisan support. Entities like the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom must, despite some well-documented challenges, operate in a bipartisan fashion.

This bipartisan element is at once one of the most important elements of the revolution—and perhaps its greatest challenge. Only time will tell to what extent all of these efforts will pay off, but without bipartisanship it will undoubtedly continue to wax and wane with the political tides.

The fact is, it may be decades before truly tectonic shifts take place in a world still largely closed to full freedom of religion. Yet for those of us who have invested many years into this issue, the iron is hot. Now is the time to redouble our efforts and to seek bipartisan support wherever possible, if only for the sake of the hundreds of millions who have never before had the freedom to follow their conscience and choose their faith without fear. A nascent revolution is underway in international religious freedom, and we must not let it go by without doing our very best to make sure this revolution leads to lasting change.

Isaac Six serves as director of advocacy for Open Doors USA and is based in Washington, D.C. His previous positions include Director for Congressional Affairs and Communications at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a fellow for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. He has traveled extensively to meet with victims of religious freedom violations around the globe and his work has appeared in a range of publications, including Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News. For more information on the work of Open Doors USA, please visit: www.opendoorsusa.org. You can harass him on Twitter @isaacsix


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