This year’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the U.S. State Department last week saw over 1,000 civil society and political leaders from around the world gather in Washington D.C. for a three-day summit to discuss religious freedom issues and solutions.
The ministerial itself is encouraging. That leaders and advocates of all faiths from all corners of the world can unite on the common goal of promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities is a step in the right direction. However, the stories of survivors of religious persecution featured at the ministerial serve to remind us of the work that still needs to be done.
Just last week, Pew Research Center released a new report which tracks government restrictions and social hostility to religion around the world over a 10-year period between 2007 and 2017. According to the report, “83 countries (42%) experienced high or very high levels of overall restrictions on religion from government actions or hostile acts by private individuals, organizations and social groups” in 2017. The enormity of this issue demonstrates the need for action both from U.S. and foreign leaders.
Thankfully, several good initiatives were announced during the ministerial. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of a new International Religious Freedom Alliance. This alliance will provide a way for like-minded countries to work together to advance religious freedom, circumventing international bodies like the U.N., which often gives countries with appalling human rights violations a seat at the table.
Last year’s ministerial—the first event of its kind—inspired other countries to hold their own religious conferences. Albania, Colombia, and Morocco are planning to hold regional religious freedom conferences soon. This October, the State Department will partner with the Vatican to co-host a summit highlighting “the importance of working with faith-based organizations to support and protect religious freedom.”
The new alliance and these subsequent regional conferences show the long-term impact of the ministerial.
Yet, the U.S. can do more to advance religious freedom across the globe.
The discussions on religious persecution featured at the ministerial must be integral to United States foreign policy and trade negotiations. Rather than an afterthought, a country’s treatment of their religious minorities should be the litmus test for whether the United States continues economic and military ties with them.
News broke last week that the Trump administration imposed economic sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against four high-profile Iraqis guilty of human rights abuses. The Global Magnitsky Act is a great tool the U.S. can use to expose the human rights/religious freedom abuses of individuals—because these sanctions are targeted, they often come without the political and diplomatic risks associated with placing sanctions on an entire country.
The Global Magnitsky Act has already been proven effective. In 2018, the Trump administration relied on Executive Order 13818 (which builds on Global Magnitsky Act authority) to sanction two Turkish officials over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson due to his Christian faith. Less than three months later, Pastor Brunson was released. This was an important victory that demonstrated the power of the tools already at our disposal.
Countries care how they are perceived on the world stage. Recent heated responses from world leaders following unfavorable assessments in the State Department’s latest Report on International Religious Freedom demonstrate that much. Events like the ministerial further emphasize the importance of being seen as a country that protects religious freedom on the world stage.
For leaders of countries that live in the shadow of a regional power-house that fails to respect religious freedom such as China, it can take courage to travel to the U.S. to discuss religious liberty. In his address at the ministerial, Pompeo noted this, saying, “If you’re here today and you’re a country which has defied the Chinese pressure to come here, we salute you and we thank you. And if you have declined to attend for the same reason, we took note.” This type of pressure from U.S. leaders can be impactful in diplomacy, and the U.S. should make these public statements more often.
Overall, the ministerial highlights several ways in which the United States and the international community can forward the cause of religious freedom. The ministerial was a great start, but it should only be the beginning.
Arielle Del Turco is the Research Assistant for Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty. Luke Isbell is an intern at FRC.