I was in Washington D.C. to report on the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a global initiative sponsored by the U.S. State Department, on July 16-18. I know that journalists around the world tend to view news from the Trump Administration with skeptical eyes and, in the days after the event, I heard from our colleagues around the world that not much news was visible from this event.
As a journalist, and a visitor from Indonesia, I am nonpartisan and always rely on the core values of journalism: fairness, accuracy and balance. In this gathering I see a significant new U.S. foreign-policy commitment to
religious freedom that journalists who specialize in covering religion should understand going forward.
That’s why I have given permission to reprint two of my reports from the Washington conference in our IARJ website.
But, before I share my two reports…
Care to learn more about the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom?
For further background on this event…
- Here is a link to the U.S. State Department web hub with information about the gathering.
- For another perspective, here is a Washington Post Opinion piece by Hugh Hewitt, a conservative-leaning commentator, radio broadcaster, NBC News analyst and contributing columnist at the Post.
- Mattathias Schwartz, an award-winning American journalist, wrote a preview for The Atlantic.
- Middle East specialist Amy Fallas wrote a piece for Sojourners headlined: Religious Liberty Shouldn’t Come at the Expense of Human Rights
- Then, a number of journalists are now reporting in more depth on the larger context of what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning under his new Commission on Unalienable Rights. The award-winning journalist (and former professor of journalism at Princeton) Carol Giacomo wrote a piece for The New York Times headlined: A New Trump Battleground—Defining Human Rights.
- Politico weighed in with coverage of a public letter protesting Pompeo’s move. And here is a PDF of the July 23 public letter.
- Catholic leaders and Catholic news media are now engaged in debating the Pompeo strategy, as well. The most prominent news analysis came from Drew Christiansen, S.J., former editor in chief and president of America magazine, who is now Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University.
- Then, religion journalist Christopher White reported for CRUX, the Catholic news magazine that spun off from the Boston Globe in 2016. White’s reporting is headlined: Former U.S. envoy to Vatican opposes new commission headed by predecessor.
THEN, here are two news-analysis columns I published from the Ministerial gathering …
The United States is pushing for freedom of religion or belief worldwide and it is urging other countries to join hands in ensuring that people around the world are free to embrace whatever faith they choose and are free to practice it.
The US State Department held this week a three-day conference that it billed as the largest gathering on freedom of religion ever held in the world, with more than 1,000 participants from more than 130 countries.
US President Donald Trump may not cut it as a freedom of religion icon, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does, and as he was opening the conference, he was introduced as
a former Sunday school teacher and tank commander. The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the second after its inauguration last year, is indeed his initiative.
There is no shortage of bipartisan support for this new foreign policy tool. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have had more than her share of fights with Trump but the veteran congresswoman has long championed freedom of religion. She made an appearance on the first day of the conference on Tuesday.
All people from every place on the globe must be permitted to practice their faith openly in their home, in their places of worship, in the public square and believe what they want to believe, Pompeo said.
America’s commitment to religious freedom will never waver, we stand with you and for you in each stage of this fight.
If in the 1990s the US government was pushing for human rights as part of its foreign policy, that now seems to be back on the front burner but with religious freedom taking priority.
Where religious freedom is protected, many other freedoms are protected, Sam Brownback, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said.
A recent British study found that more than 80 percent of the global population experienced severe limitations in exercising their beliefs, and while this affects people of almost all religions, the study said Christians made up the bulk of the victims.
The first day’s conference heard testimony from people who confronted violence because of their religion, such as the attack in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Easter bombing in Sri Lanka, the mosque attack in New Zealand, the abduction and rape of Yahidi women and children by the Islamic State (IS) group, and the reported arrests and internment of the Uighur ethnic group in China.
The inaugural conference last year came out with the Potomac Declaration calling on nations to address the problem. One suggestion was the creation of roundtables in each country to discuss and resolve the issue.
The most severe criticism was reserved for China from speaker Pelosi. She lashed out not only at China’s reported persecution against the Muslim Uighurs but also at the business world, which had turned a blind eye in the name of profit. China denies the allegations and said the Uighurs were sent for training to preempt the rise of radicalism and to equip them with skills so that they could catch up with the rest of China.
Unless we are willing to speak out against human rights violations in China, we lose all moral authority to talk about rights anywhere in the world, Pelosi said.
Bringing religion into diplomacy is not a novelty. Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, has been doing just that for the last 15 years, promoting interfaith dialogues worldwide. Now the United States is joining in, taking the lead in the global campaign for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief.
Last week, the US State Department brought together more than 1,000 government representatives, religious leaders and civil society organizations from more than 130 countries to join in its campaign to stop the persecution of people for their beliefs — all beliefs, not just one or two.
Promoting religious freedom is now a central part of US foreign policy, backed by Republican President Donald Trump, who invited some survivors of religious persecution to the White House last week, and by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who spoke at the conference.
Religious freedom is an unalienable right, not an option. Every person around the world should be free to believe as they see fit, State Secretary Mike Pompeo told the three-day gathering.
The Trump administration is committed to making this ideal a reality worldwide.
With intense pressure from the Christian right, one of Trump’s chief constituent groups, idealism replaces the realism that colored the foreign policy of his predecessor Barrack Obama.
How far Washington is going to push this agenda, and whether it is prepared to go to war, remains to be seen. The last country the US tried to bring democracy to by means of war was Iraq, which ended disastrously.
In the decade after the end of the Cold War, the US pushed for human rights globally, but religious freedom never featured prominently. This time, freedom of religion takes priority, as Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said:
Where religious freedom is protected, many other freedoms are protected.
As much as 80 percent of the world’s population lives under regimes that curtail religious freedoms, according to a recent British study. While the bulk of the victims are Christians, the State Department made it clear that this is a campaign to stop persecution against people of all faiths, anywhere in the world.
The popular phrase
an attack on one religion is an attack on all religions has brought people of different faiths together in solidarity in condemning each violent incident against people because of their faiths, oftentimes waged by extremists claiming to act in the name of a religion.
The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom conference heard stories of persecutions in much of Asia, like China, Myanmar and Vietnam, and across the Middle East and Africa. It also recognized problems at home and in much of the Western world with the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
It is unclear how much support the US has from other governments, but many European governments have appointed special envoys or ambassadors dealing with religious freedom, underpinning the importance of religion in international diplomacy. Hungary, which proclaims itself a Christian nation, has designated a minister to help persecuted Christians all over the world.
Indonesia, which also has issues with the protection of religious minorities, should be comfortable discussing religion at diplomatic forums since campaigning for religious freedom complements rather than clashes with its interfaith dialogue initiatives.
Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian based in Israel, who has traveled to the Arab Muslim world, told the conference that although problems remained regarding the fate of minority religions in the Middle East, things were actually improving or looking up and raising hopes.
Rosenberg said Saudi Arabia was cracking down on extremist preachers, and although churches were still not allowed, foreign nationals were allowed to gather in private homes for worship; in the United Arab Emirates, some 700 churches now operate without fear, and in February, Pope Francis became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to step foot on the Arabian Peninsula in 14 centuries; Jordan has allowed 13 Christian denominations to build churches and King Abdullah II has taken the lead in promoting religious moderation, tolerance and respect for Christians; Under President el-Sisi, Egypt has rebuilt every church destroyed during the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign of terror, and thousands of new ones are being built.
Tony Blair, who has been championing pluralism since stepping down as British prime minister, said the wealthiest countries in the G-7, or the larger G-20, should take up the campaign for religious freedom and make it a central part of their agenda.
Not peripheral but central; not a fight left to NGOs but taken up by government, and not governments left to campaign on their own, but joined together in one effective global movement.