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.