This week, political and religious leaders from around the world will travel to the nation’s capital to attend the second annual conference International Religious Freedom Summit. The IRF Summit is the world’s largest civil society-led conference focused on promoting international religious freedom. The summit highlights the remarkable bipartisanship that has characterized the growth of the international religious freedom movement over the past 25 years.
The IRF summit is co-chaired by former Republican-appointed Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and former chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF ) nominated by Democrats, Katrina Lantos Swett. Speakers include current Biden-appointed Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Marco Rubio (R – Florida.). Leaders who are often viewed as political opponents often become allies when it comes to advancing religious freedom outside the United States.
Bipartisan cooperation among American politicians has produced concrete results for the international religious liberty movement since the unanimity International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Last year, Congress enacted major legislation with a landslide agreement advancing international religious freedom, including the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law and the permanent reauthorization of the Magnitsky Global Human Rights Accountability Act. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly said reaffirmed the genocide designation declared by Pompeo for China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, China.
Such unity is especially important today, as the persecution of religious minorities reaches record levels around the world. Just last year, the US government officially recognized the religion-based genocide not only in China but also in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslimswho have suffered unimaginable atrocities since the Tatmadaw coup in February 2021. In Afghanistan, religious minorities face genocidal conditions since the withdrawal of the American army. Violence against Muslims and Christians in India continues to rise and Indian states continue to pass laws difficult to convert from one religion to another. And sub-Saharan Africa has become the new center for terrorist attacks inspired by the ideology of the Islamic State, seriously endangering religious minorities in the region.
Persecution survivors will share their stories at the IRF summit – people like Ren Ruiting, whose church in China, the Early Rain Covenant Church, was shut down by the Chinese Communist Party. His pastor was arrested and is still in detention. After months of police harassment, Ruiting finally fled China.
Or Mariam Ibraheem, who was sentenced to death and forced to give birth in a prison in Sudan because she was a Christian. She is now advocating for the rights of Christians facing the same unfair accusations in Sudan.
Or Nouri Turkelthe incoming president of USCIRF, who began life in a Chinese re-education camp because he and his family were Uyghur Muslims.
The harrowing circumstances these survivors have faced are so appalling that they unite people from all walks of life in the defense of freedom. While some regions, such as parts of the European Union, have started to shy to recognize the widespread problem of religious persecution, the United States continues to be a place where there is broad consensus that religious persecution around the world must be confronted.
This broad unity does not mean that controversies do not arise. Blinken’s removal of Nigeria from the US government’s list of the world’s worst religious freedom violators last year sparked a uproar in the international religious freedom community, with the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stating that it was “appalledto the decision. Recent attacks in Nigeria, such as the brutal lynching of a Christian student Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu and the massacre dozens of Catholics celebrating Pentecost in Owo, relaunched calls for the United States to recognize the religious persecution that is taking place in the country. The bishop of the attacked churches will be among the speakers at the IRF summit this week.
But even if the United States’ response to persecution around the world is often insufficient, what is still remarkable is the extent of bipartisan and civil society dedication to advancing the rights of individuals around the world to choose and live according to their religious beliefs. Examples of collaboration across the aisle to address areas of common interest are all too rare at present, but this week’s International Religious Freedom Summit will provide a glimpse of what is still possible – and, on this issue, desperately needed.
It is only through efforts at all levels of governance and society to combat religious persecution that we will truly see freedom guaranteed in the world.
Kelsey Zorzi is Chair of the UN NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Director of Global Religious Freedom Advocacy for ADF International. His writing has appeared in several media, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Newsweek and RealClear. Twitter: @KelseyZorzi.