New Report: The Rohingya Crisis: The Shameful Global Response to Genocide and the Assault on Religious Freedom

Nearly one year ago, on August 25, 2017, a wave of violence was unleashed against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, Burma. Thousands were killed in brutal fashion and more than 700,000 were displaced. In a new report, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) considers the facts of what happened in August 2017 and the broader context of religious freedom violations in Burma. The report also puts forward concrete recommendations on what is to be done.

The Rohingya Crisis: The Shameful Global Response to Genocide and the Assault on Religious Freedom  adds to the mounting documentation of the plight of the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority of Burma (Myanmar) and is a call to action.

This report should serve as a reminder of the needs of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who flooded into Bangladesh in the aftermath of the Burmese military attacks in August 2017. While the influx of refugees has largely subsided, the needs of the individuals, families, and communities who survived the crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide perpetrated by the government because of ethnicity and religion still remain. 

The Rohingya are not alone in their endurance of blatant attacks to their rights to religious freedom. Christians among the Kachin, Chin, and the marginalized Naga communities of Burma face are still facing rights restrictions. They are once again seeing targeted military campaigns, in some cases perpetrated by the very same units who targeted the Rohingya. 

This report is in response to the unresolved refugee and humanitarian crisis that extends beyond the Rohingya and threatens to be forgotten. The report provides an overview of the historical, ethno-religious, humanitarian, and international dimensions of this particular crisis, and emphasizes that the overwhelming evidence merits the label of genocide and crimes against humanity be applied to the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya by the Burmese military and other actors.

Regardless of what label is applied, the evidence of atrocities against the Rohingya is overwhelming. In light of such evidence, the Burmese government and international community must ask themselves, are they unaware or unconcerned about the genocide being perpetrated against the Rohingya Muslims of Burma? 

These violations of religious freedom and acts of genocide against the Rohingya of Burma cannot go unanswered. The international community, individual governments, and faith leaders and their congregants around the world, must not be silent in the face of such a blatant assault on religious freedom and such a violent act of genocide.

Examining Contemporary Religious Freedom Issues in Southeast Asia

1st panel.png

On Thursday July 26, 2018, The Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), and Boat People SOS co-sponsored “Lessons from Southeast Asia: State and Non-State Threats to Religious Freedom.” The event was RFI’s final side-event held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

The event featured two panels and a wide range of experts and leaders from Malaysia, Vietnam, and the greater religious freedom policy community. Panelists included USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza, RFI Executive Director Kent Hill, Program Manager at the Institute for Global Engagement Hien Vu, RFI Senior Fellow Paul Marshall, President of Boat People SOS Thang Nguyen, RFI Senior Fellow Eugene Yapp, Jubilee Campaign President Ann Buwalda, and ERLC Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel Travis Wussow. Each panel drew lessons from the region as well as from the rest of the world.

The event premiered a short film titled Malaysia: A Fight for Freedom and Identity produced by ERLC. The film highlighted the difficulties faced by individuals of minority religions in Malaysia due to the current religious registration system that compels citizens to include religion on their identity card.

The film was followed by the first panel’s welcome discussion of the role religious registration systems play in restricting religious freedom for religious orders and individuals.

Annbuwalda.png

Kent Hill opened by emphasizing that insistence on a particular religion or worldview in a country is inherently and empirically unhealthy. Doing so is a threat to one’s own people and one’s neighbors. Ann Buwalda discussed how hudud ordinances (ordinances under Sharia law) are expanding throughout Malaysia, including in predominantly Christian areas. In agreement with his co-panelists, Eugene Yapp explained how the ERLC film rebuts claims that an officially Islamic Malaysia will not be detrimental to Malaysia’s historically pluralistic society. Minority communities have been and are being affected to the detriment to Malaysia’s historically pluralistic society.

During the Q&A period, the panel discussed non-Muslim court cases in Malaysia which had been sent to Islamic courts, spoke to the importance of understanding humans as both physical and spiritual beings, and emphasized that an incremental approach to advancing religious freedom is particularly important in non-Western contexts.  

The second panel focused on the impact of non-state actors in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. Thang Nguyen spoke on the presence of synergies between the government and non-state actors in Vietnam. He highlighted how governments can use these synergies (including those with state-sanctions religious organizations) to harass religious groups in their country.

Hien+Thang.png

Hien Vu spoke on Vietnam’s recently passed law on religion. While the law was motivated by a desire to manage religion, the Vietnamese government did accept some input from outside scholars. Through such interactions, the government is becoming more aware of the positive contributions non-state actors like religious groups can make in Vietnamese society.  

Paul Marshall emphasized that the biggest and most influential non-state actors in the majority of the world are those found in mosques, churches or temples. He stressed that this should not be forgotten.

The second panel’s Q&A discussed the banning of certain potentially violent non-state actors in Indonesia, the upcoming Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief (SEAFoRB) conference in Bangkok, and finding a way to hold influential and potentially dangerous non-state actors accountable to violations of religious freedom.  

The dual panel discussion was closed with remarks by Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee On East Asia, The Pacific, And International Cybersecurity Policy. The Senator expressed his gratitude to those who make religious freedom a priority, and stressed that if the U.S. cannot stand for religious freedom, then what can we stand for?

On the closing day of the ministerial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom would not be the last.

This year’s ministerial officially concluded on Thursday July 26, and side events in conjunction with the ministerial ended on Friday July 27.

Religious Freedom, the Unused Tool in a Diplomat’s Toolkit

audience.png

On Wednesday July 25, 2018, The Religious Freedom Institute hosted “Enhancing the Diplomat’s Toolkit: Best Practices in Advancing International Religious Freedom.” The event was held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

The panel discussion included Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Senior Fellow for the International Religious Freedom Policy Action Team and former Canadian Ambassador for Religious Freedom; Thomas Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute and founding Director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom; and Jeremy Barker, Senior Program Officer at the Religious Freedom Institute.

tom+andrew.png

After opening remarks by Andrew Bennett, Thomas Farr recounted experiences from his diplomatic career that highlighted the need for diplomats trained in religion and religious freedom. For example, while Farr was working in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, a memorandum to the Secretary of State on Catholic religious views was returned to its author with the notation that religious subjects were not an appropriate matter for the Secretary’s consideration. Such views, Farr argued, reflect both an aggressive and unrealistic secularism and a misplaced belief that religious analysis is a step toward the establishment of religion. How can our foreign policy engage nations like Iraq or Iran and dismiss religion?

Both evidence and common sense suggests that all human beings are religious by nature. Each of us naturally seek to know whether there is a greater-than-human source of our being and of ultimate meaning. This reality means that literacy about religion, and about religious freedom, is essential to diplomacy, even in secular Western societies. Farr believes that while there has been progress in American diplomatic religious literacy, there is still much work to be done.

Canada, it seems, is no better than the U.S. when it comes to training diplomats in religion and religious freedom. Andrew Bennett spoke of his time as the first Ambassador for Religious Freedom in Canada. Bennett described when he was asked within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs how his Catholic faith influenced his work. Bennett said his faith influences everything he does – his work and his interactions with people. In the weeks following the question, half a dozen outgoing ambassadors approached him expressing their wish that they too could say things like that.

For Bennett, if we start from the stance that faith should not be public, diplomats are going to have a hard time understanding why religious freedom is so essential. He does not fault diplomats for not knowing about faith, but rather for not doing anything about that lack of knowledge.

jeremy.png

To conclude, Jeremy Barker discussed how the Religious Freedom Institute is working to empower diplomats to engage with religious actors. Barker highlighted RFI’s work on religious freedom landscape reports, future programmatic focuses and finally, RFI’s planned work on analysis, indicators, and metrics to inform work on religious freedom throughout the world.

Barker also spoke on how RFI is developing a curriculum and training for government actors, legislators and civil society. These programs will essentially promote an understanding of what religious freedom is, offer tools for engaging with religious actors, and show what ways one can advance religious freedom.

The event had a vigorous response and was standing room only.

 

The Vatican, Dignitatis Humanae, and International Religious Freedom

panel.png

On Tuesday July 24, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) and the Center for Religious Liberty at Catholic University co-sponsored “The Fight for International Religious Freedom: Perspectives from the Vatican.” The event was held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

RFI President, Thomas Farr, opened the event by remarking on the urgency of international religious freedom and the importance of this historic Ministerial.

William Saunders, the Co-Director of the Center for Religious Liberty, introduced the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich.

Calista.png

Although the policy of international religious freedom is new, Ambassador Gingrich reminded attendees that the principle is woven into the fabric of America.

However, “It’s a dangerous time to be a person of faith,” she warned. “The State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report indicates the severity of rising intolerance.”

“It is an intolerance,” said the Ambassador, “that uniquely harms women and girls.” She cited Boko Haram’s kidnapping of thousands of girls, as well as the rape of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh.

“Women’s rights are not in conflict with religious freedom. Where there is freedom of religion, women’s rights are upheld.” Ambassador Gingrich noted the special role women religious leaders play in interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution.

After her speech Dr. Thomas Farr moderated a conversation with the former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz and Archbishop Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States. Former Ambassador Francis Rooney, U.S. Representative from Florida and Vice Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined for part of the evening but unfortunately was called to vote on the House floor.

Archbishop Gallagher spoke on the Second Vatican Council’s contribution of the landmark document Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty) to the landscape of religious freedom. “According to this doctrine, he explained, the Holy See aims to see the world in a “non-sectarian way.” The Vatican’s priority is the dignity of the human person.”

Diaz.png

Ambassador Díaz argued that bridge-building and reason are part of the Catholic theological tradition. Addressing an audience member’s question about the limits of religious freedom, Ambassador Díaz cited reason as the tempering force of both faith and law. Lawmakers must not arbitrarily restrict freedoms, nor should religious freedom allow for extremist practices.

The event ended with a vigorous question and answer session with the audience, followed by a reception.

The first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom is hosted by Secretary Pompeo in Washington, D.C. The Ministerial focuses on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real and positive change. The Ministerial convened a broad range of stakeholders, including foreign ministers, international organization representatives, religious leaders, and civil society representatives, to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.

The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom continued through Wednesday and Thursday, with side events continuing through Friday.

 

 

Religious Freedom Veterans Reflect on the Past, Present, and Future of the Movement

Audience.jpg

On Monday, July 23, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) and 21Wilberforce co-sponsored “International Religious Freedom Act at 20 and World of Faith and Freedom at 10: What has Changed and What is Changing?” The event was held in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State’s Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

Opening remarks by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) emphasized the urgency of the State Department holding the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in a world where 83% of people live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom. “Indifference is an enemy of progress,” Representative Smith reminded us. And this unprecedented Ministerial is a testament to this administration’s understanding of the crisis.

The opening conversation, moderated by 21Wilberforce Executive Director Sharon Payt, featured religious freedom veterans Congressman Frank Wolf and RFI President Thomas Farr. Their combined decades of experience in the movement gave attendees valuable insight into the past, present, and future of religious freedom.

Tom+Frank.png.jpg

Farr spoke candidly on the “Religion Avoidance Syndrome” among diplomats and the lack of religious understanding in the foreign service infrastructure. Global religious freedom is inextricable from economic and political stability, as well as U.S. national security.

With a fervor that’s expected from the “Godfather of the religious freedom movement,” Congressman Wolf lamented the silence of U.S. faith leaders, as well as bureaucratic inefficacy. He called for the U.S. to make full use of its foreign policy toolkit in battling religious persecution. “South African apartheid would’ve never fallen without sanctions,” he said.

Looking forward, Farr emphasized the importance of recognizing the place of religious freedom in our own history. In order to fight for religious freedom abroad, we need to revisit our own values and understand why it’s important to Americans living in America. And if we can’t do it, in a country defined by religious freedom, who can?

The final panel was moderated by RFI Executive Director Kent Hill. It featured Emilie Kao, Director of the Devos Center for Religion and Society at the Heritage Foundation, Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation, and Allen Hertzke, David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma.

Emilie Kao reflected on the birth of the movement 20 years ago; “we’ve come a long way but the challenges are not receding.” She highlighted the twofold obstacle facing religious freedom: aggressive secularism (exemplified by the French hijab ban) as well as religious extremism (such as Buddhist extremists in Myanmar, ISIS, and Indian Hindu extremism).

Indeed, Dr. Hertzke articulated the irony of this moment in history. Where we have an unprecedented slew of data on the correlation between religious freedom and economic flourishing, peace, and democracy yet religious freedom is increasingly under attack.

Katrina Lantos Swett.jpg

“It’s under attack abroad as well as at home,” Katrina Swett remarked. America’s political polarization has made religious freedom a partisan issue, which undermines our goals abroad. She recalled her difficulties as Chair of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom in working with Democrats who see “religious freedom” as code for bigotry. Kao added that the case for religious freedom must be made toward non-religious Americans who don’t understand its value. Religious freedom has not been immune to the recent trend of human rights politicization.

Finally, Dr. Hertzke observed the recent climate of ethnonationalism that has undermined domestic religious freedom. This trend must be challenged on the grounds of healthy pluralism. He optimistically stated that our efforts abroad will help us examine our issues at home.

Following the conversation, attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions. A reception followed.

The first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom was hosted by Secretary Pompeo in Washington, D.C. The Ministerial focused on concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real and positive change. The Ministerial convened a broad range of stakeholders, including foreign ministers, international organization representatives, religious leaders, and civil society representatives, to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.

The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom took place from Tuesday, July 24 through Thursday, July 26. Ministerial with numerous side-events which spanned the entire week.

 

The U.K. Ups their Game in Defense of Global Religious Freedom

That Prime Minister Theresa May has seen fit to establish the special envoy role and to appoint Lord Ahmad to it demonstrates not only the importance that the British government gives to advancing international religious freedom within its foreign policy, but I would argue to the principle of freedom of religion generally as a fundamental freedom -a freedom with deep roots in the Anglo-American political tradition.

Promoting the Virtues of Religious Freedom among Middle Eastern and North African Muslim Leaders

Our engagement with these professionals demonstrated the intense interest many Muslim leaders in the Middle East and North Africa have in the principles of freedom. They want to understand how freedom for all may be respected in society and protected in law without undermining Islamic beliefs and practice. We hope we persuaded some of our visitors that that this is indeed possible.

Countering Extremism In Indonesia And Beyond

Between May 8 and May 14, 2018 Indonesia was hit by a wave of ISIS terrorist attacks, including bombings carried out by families--fathers, mothers, and children together. The principal targets were churches and police stations, including the headquarters of the paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade (which is also where Ahok, the former Governor of Jakarta and a Christian, is serving a sentence for blasphemy). In the wave of attacks, thirteen terrorists and fourteen others were killed, and more than 40 were injured.

The Indonesian government’s security forces responded strongly. There were some early arrests and then, on May 31, in a series of raids, anti-terrorist squads arrested 41 terror suspects and killed 4 others. These raids came less than a week after the May 25 passage of a new anti-terrorism law that criminalized overseas terror attacks and allowed for longer detention of suspects. The bill had been languishing in parliament for two years amid controversies over how strict it should be and how to define terrorism, but this the wave of deadly suicide attacks persuaded lawmakers the bill should be passed.

But a much more low-key event may signal broader changes in how Indonesia is approaching its effort to combat extremism.

 Indonesian President Joko Widodo with members of his cabinet and other Palace officials, inaugurating Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf—former spokesman of Indonesia’s fourth President H.E. KH. Abdurrahman Wahid—to the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres). Photo: Screencapture via youtube/Bayt ar-Rahmah

Indonesian President Joko Widodo with members of his cabinet and other Palace officials, inaugurating Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf—former spokesman of Indonesia’s fourth President H.E. KH. Abdurrahman Wahid—to the Presidential Advisory Council (Wantimpres). Photo: Screencapture via youtube/Bayt ar-Rahmah

On May 31, Indonesian President Joko Widodo appointed Kyai Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf (Pak Yahya) as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council. Pak Yahya is from one of Indonesia’s most distinguished Muslim families, is the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organization, and is the head of Gerkan Pemuda Ansor (ANSOR), NU’s young-adult wing, which has some 5 million members. He is also among the Muslim world’s most incisive and outspoken reformers.

NU has long been engaged in ideological combat with Islamist extremism. In May 2017, Ansor called together more than 300 international religious scholars to consider the “obsolete tenets of classical Islamic law” that call for “perpetual conflict with those who do not embrace or submit to Islam.” This gathering issued the Ansor “Declaration on Humanitarian Islam,” that built on the May 16, 2016, NU-hosted International Summit of Moderate Islamic Leaders (ISOMIL).

The “Declaration on Humanitarian Islam,” is far more self-critical than declarations that have come from the Middle East. It argues that there are elements within classical Islam that are problematic and need to be changed. At the press conference announcing the Declaration, Ansor Chairman Yaqut Qoumas stated "It is false and counterproductive to claim that the actions of al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other such groups have nothing to do with Islam, or merely represent a perversion of Islamic teachings. They are, in fact, outgrowths of Wahhabism and other fundamentalist streams of Sunni Islam."

Pak Yahya reemphasized these themes and expressed them in an even more radical fashion in a July 18, 2017, address to the Council of the European Union Terrorism Working Party, many of whose members would have accused the speaker of Islamophobia if he had been anyone else. He stressed:

“Western politicians should stop pretending that extremism and terrorism have nothing to do with Islam. There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam.”
“Within the classical tradition, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is assumed to be one of segregation and enmity.”
“Why, no matter how many [terrorists] we kill or put in jail, new recruits are always coming to join them? Here is the fact: the problem lies within Islam itself. Jihadist doctrine, goals and strategy can be readily traced to specific elements of orthodox, authoritative Islam and its historic practice, including those portions of fiqh—classical Islamic law or shari‘ah—that enjoin Islamic supremacy.”

While NU as a whole has not endorsed the “Declaration on Humanitarian Islam,” Pak Yahya told me they are discussing it and he has suffered little criticism for his statements. The arguments that he and Ansor are making are radical, and crucial in the battle with extremism. And they are gaining increasing attention in Indonesia and around the world.

On May 17, 2018, Pak Yahya met with Vice President Pence for the second time. And the fact that Indonesian President Jokowi has now appointed him to his Advisory Council sends a strong signal about Jokowi’s own attitudes.


Paul Marshall is Wilson Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University, Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute and member of the South and Southeast Asia (SSEA) Action Team, and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom

“Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes" - NextGen Summer Speaker Series

On Wednesday, June 20, the Religious Freedom Institute continued its 2018 Summer Speaker Series with a soccer-oriented discussion, “Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What Religious Freedom Has to Do with the World Cup”. The event was led by Dr. Jennifer Bryson Director of RFI’s Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team.

RFI Kicks Off NextGen Summer Series with Discussion on Religious Freedom and International Development

RFI Kicks Off NextGen Summer Series with  Discussion on Religious Freedom and International Development

On Wednesday, June 13, the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) kicked off its NextGen Summer Speaker Series with an inaugural talk on “Humanitarian Aid, International Development, and Religious Freedom.” Keynote speaker Dr. Kent Hill, Executive Director of RFI, spoke on the importance of religious freedom in international development, drawing from his experience as Senior Vice President of World Vision and eight years as Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

New Release: Homo Religiosus? Co-Edited by Timothy Shah

New Release: Homo Religiosus? Co-Edited by Timothy Shah

Timothy Shah, Director of the Religious Freedom Institute's South and Southeast Asia Action Team has released a new co-edited book: Homo Religiosus: Exploring the Roots of Religion and Religious Freedom in Human Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

The book explores the question of whether religion is natural to human beings. Despite a whole host of disagreement in the book, all of the contributors share the view that religious freedom and religion is important to human beings and societies and there is good reason to ensure its protection. 

Innovative Approaches to Promoting Religious Freedom in the Middle East and Beyond

The Religious Freedom Institute is taking innovative steps to help increase support for religious freedom within Muslim communities in the United States and abroad. This month, we launched our fifth Action Team—the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team—to do just that. Among other benefits, this Action Team will accelerate our work with Islamic scholars and leaders to explore sources of support for religious freedom from within the traditions of Islam. 

The Importance of Free Exercise to American Democracy

I spoke recently at an Army Chaplains’ Religious Leaders Symposium on our nation’s revolutionary understanding of religion, and of religious freedom. I contended that this understanding, which has served our nation so well since the founding, is under threat, and that all Americans – of whatever religion or none – should defend it. 

My argument centered around the meaning and reach of the religious liberty protections in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.