Cornerstone Forum: Considering the Religious Dimensions of the Conflict in Ukraine

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.

RFI Conference Commemorates the 20th Anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act

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: A Strategy for Security

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.

Senate Testimony: The Global Crisis of Religious Freedom: the Stakes for America and the World

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.

Thomas Farr President, Religious Freedom Institute

Thomas Farr
President, Religious Freedom Institute

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

Tom Farr Congressional Testimony: The Assault on Religion in China and What To Do About It

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.

Rogers: In signing the China deal, the Vatican is taking an enormous risk

Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at at the human rights organization CSW and a Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute writes at the Catholic Herald on the risks of the new deal struck between the Vatican and the Chinese government. As Rogers wrote in the days just before the announcement, “China is currently engaged in the worst crackdown on Christians in decades.”

Read more of his perspective on this development: In signing the China deal, the Vatican is taking an enormous risk

Cornerstone Forum: Debating Europe's "Burqa Bans"

Six countries in Europe have now passed nationwide or partial bans on face-veils, and others have legislation pending for additional bans. Speaking critically of either the bans or the Muslim practice of veiling engenders a firestorm of debate, as former Mayor of London and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson did with an article in the Telegraph denouncing the ban in Denmark, while also bluntly criticizing in demeaning fashion the practice of covering the face.

Women riding in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Flickr/Cycle Chic Copenhagen_55.

Women riding in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Flickr/Cycle Chic Copenhagen_55.

The response to the controversy has largely focused on questions of free speech, with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) labeling the remarks as “inflammatory and divisive” but not within its jurisdiction to prosecute.

Yet, what of the more fundamental question about the public expression of religious belief? Is it appropriate, as the European Court of Human Rights said in its 2014 ruling in S.A.S vs. France, that veiling must be restricted in favor of the principle of “living together” and promoting “tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.” 

In this series on Cornerstone Forum, we asked scholars to examine what the implications are of religious freedom for protecting the right to public expressions of faith, even those expressions which may seem to resist cultural assimilation.

China's Religious Freedom Restrictions On Muslims Hurt Both State and Citizens

Xinjiang Province of Western China represent a harrowing example of how government fears, in this case of separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism, can lead to disastrous religious restrictions justified as security measures but which ultimately act to the detriment of both the state and its citizens.

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

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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.


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 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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.”


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


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.


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.

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“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.