Contributors to this Cornerstone Forum series were asked to consider both the historical significance of recent developments in Ukraine, but also the practical implications for religious communities of the latest developments. What is the role religious communities can play in seeking to bring an end to the conflict and secure fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom within a healthy denominationalism? What steps should policy makers take to promote peace and advance fundamental rights and freedoms for all in Ukraine.
Twenty years ago, the 105th Congress passed the landscape-changing International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). The Law established within the State Department an Office of International Religious Freedom, created the position of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom as the principal diplomat to advance religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy, and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Today, the mechanisms created by that bill continue to shape U.S. foreign policy objectives promoting religious freedom for all people in all nations.
On November 9th, over 250 scholars and advocates of religious freedom, some of whom have suffered persecution for their faith, gathered in Washington, D.C. for a day-long conference to commemorate the 20th anniversary of IRFA.
Religious freedom advocates face this predicament: We fervently believe that our cause fosters justice and human dignity yet find that these qualities alone do little to persuade officials in the State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, or the White House to make promoting religious freedom a high priority. In Washington, only the national interest talks.
Well, a formidable case that religious freedom affects our interests now emerges in a book by political scientist Nilay Saiya, Weapon of Peace: How Religious Liberty Combats Terrorism, published this year by Cambridge University Press. (Full disclosure: I was the adviser of Saiya’s doctoral dissertation, on which the book is based). Saiya’s thesis is simple: when governments violate the religious freedom of their citizens, they foment religious terrorism.
President of the Religious Freedom Institute, Thomas Farr, testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on The Constitution at a hearing entitled: Threats to Religious Liberty Around the World
Dr. Farr’s testimony concluded with a reminder of what is at stake:
Just as we seek to advance religious freedom with our diplomacy in places where government coercion of religious communities is triggering a humanitarian disaster and a grave strategic danger to our national interests, so too must we recognize the danger of government coercion within our own society. We must not forget that America was founded on religious liberty. Our founders firmly believed that without it, our great experiment in democracy would fail.
That is because the first freedom was, and is, a protection for all of us. Not just for Christians, Jews, or Muslims, and not just for religious people. Religious freedom benefits America. If we are not free to believe and to live our lives in accord with our deepest convictions about ultimate truth, then the consequences go far beyond the fate of any one religious group or any one nation.
Without religious freedom in full for everyone, none of us can be truly free.
Read his full testimony here: The Global Crisis of Religious Freedom: the Stakes for America and the World
Joining Dr. Farr as witnesses at the hearing are Dr. Bob Fu, President, ChinaAid and Ms. Amanda Tyler, Executive Director, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty
The video of the hearing and full text of witness testimony is available here: Threats to Religious Liberty Around the World
The current assault on religion in China under President Xi Jinping is the most comprehensive attempt to manipulate and control religious communities since the Cultural Revolution. Xi’s policy should be seen as a particularly troubling aspect of the global crisis in religious freedom, one in which over three-quarters of the world’s people live in nations where religion is highly, or very highly, restricted. China is one of those nations. - Thomas Farr, President, Religious Freedom Institute
As Dr. Farr makes clear in his testimony, the situation is dire for China’s Muslim Uighers, Tibetan Budhhists, and Christians both Catholic and Protestant. Xi’s policy presents a major challenge to U.S. international religious freedom policy, which has to date had little impact in China. It is time to try a different approach.
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.