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Advancing Religious Freedom in South and Southeast Asia: Religious Minorities and the Challenges of Extremism and Violent Ethno-Religious Nationalism

  • GWU Elliott School of International Affairs (City View Room and Terrace) 1957 E St NW Washington, DC 20052 (map)

Join us for a panel discussion on Advancing Religious Freedom in South and Southeast Asia: Religious Minorities and the Challenges of Extremism and Violent Ethno-Religious Nationalism. In recent years, religious freedom has sharply deteriorated in much of South and Southeast Asia. Hostility to religious minorities is driven by increasingly violent strains of ethno-religious nationalism and extremist ideologies that politicize religion. In Sri Lanka, India, Burma, Nepal, and Pakistan, violence against Christians and other religious minorities, as well as legal restrictions on their ability to freely worship and live out their faith publicly, are on the rise. This event will feature experts on the legal and social conditions religious minorities are facing in South and Southeast Asia and prominent advocates for the promotion of religious freedom around the globe.


Burma Landscape Report

Sri Lanka Landscape Report

Malaysia Landscape Report



7:00 PM | Welcome by Kelsey Zorzi, Director of Advocacy for Global Religious Freedom, ADF International

7:05 PM | Introduction by Timothy Shah, Vice President for Strategy and International Research, and Director, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, Religious Freedom Institute (RFI)

7:10 PM | Remarks: The Dangers of Ethno-Religious Nationalism: Burma and Beyond by Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Lead, CSW, and Senior Fellow, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, RFI

7:25 PM | Panel Discussion: Advancing Religious Freedom Amidst the Challenges of Extremism and Violent Ethno-Religious Nationalism

Tehmina Arora, Senior Legal Counsel, ADF International, Senior Fellow, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, RFI

Balakrishnan Baskaran, Legal Counsel, ADF India

Farahnaz Ispahani, Senior Fellow, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, RFI, and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars

Rebecca Shah, Senior Fellow and Associate Director, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, RFI

Moderator: Timothy Shah, Vice President for Strategy and International Research, and Director, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, RFI

8:25 PM | Closing Remarks by Timothy Shah, Vice President for Strategy and International Research, and Director, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, RFI

Reception to Follow



Tehmina Arora serves as a senior legal counsel with ADF International, specializing in constitutional law and human rights. She also serves as a Senior Fellow, South and Southeast Asia Action Team, for the Religious Freedom Institute.  Since joining ADF International as a legal consultant in 2012, Arora has focused on working with allied lawyers, providing legal support, training, and advocacy to help Christians and churches targeted for their faith across South Asia. Arora has written frequently on female foeticide and religious freedom in Asia and her articles have featured in national dailies in India and in various journals abroad. 


Balakrishnan Baskaran is a human rights lawyer based in New Delhi with a special focus on religious freedom and minority rights. He serves as Legal Counsel and Director of Strategic Relations & Training for ADF India. He formerly worked with the National Commission for Minorities, a statutory body set up under an act of the Indian Parliament, to safeguard the rights of religious minorities. Balakrishnan completed his law degree from the Delhi University and was awarded the gold medal for Constitutional Law by the President of India. He had previously completed his Master of Science degree at the Kansas University.

Farahnaz Ispahani is the author of the recently released book (Harper-Collins, India) Purifying The Land of The Pure: Pakistan's Religious Minorities. In 2015, she was a Reagan-Fascell Scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, DC where she worked on Women and Extremist groups with a particular focus on the women of ISIS. Ispahani was a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center from 2013-2014. A Pakistani politician, Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008-2012. She returned to Pakistan with Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 after opposing the Musharraf dictatorship in the preceding years. In Parliament she focused on the issues of terrorism, human rights, gender based violence, minority rights and US-Pakistan relations. The most notable pieces of legislation enacted with her active support include those relating to Women’s Harassment in the Workplace and Acid Crimes and Control, which made disfiguring of women by throwing acid at them a major crime. Ms. Ispahani spent the formative years of her career as a print and television journalist. Her last journalistic position was as Executive Producer and Managing Editor of Voice of America's Urdu TV. She has also worked at ABC News, CNN and MSNBC. She has contributed opinion pieces to the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, The National Review, The Hindu, India, The News, Pakistan and The Huffington Post. Ms. Ispahani has spoken at many forums in the US and abroad including the Aspen Ideas Festival, The Brussels Forum, The Aspen Congressional Program, The Chautauqua Institute, The University of Pennsylvania, Wellesley College, Jamia Millia University, Delhi.


Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist specializing in Asia and is East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization CSW. He focuses particularly on Burma, North Korea, China and Indonesia. He is the author of six books, including Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads (2012, Random House) and Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant (2010, Silkworm), and several major reports including Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to persecution, crimes against humanity and genocide. He is a regular contributor to international media including The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Spectator, The Diplomat and Huffington Post and has appeared on BBC, CNN, al-Jazeera and other television and radio stations. He is co-founder and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, a trustee of the Chin Human Rights Organization and a Senior Fellow at the RFI.


Rebecca Samuel Shah serves as Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the South and Southeast Asia Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute. A pioneering scholar of the impact of religious belief and practice on the social and economic lives of poor women in the Global South, Shah currently serves as Research Professor at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, where she is the Principal Investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP), funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. Born and raised in Bangalore, India, she holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Economics and Economic History and a Master’s of Science in Demography, both from the London School of Economics. She is also an associate scholar with Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project, and is Project Leader of the Holy Avarice Project on religion and modern capitalism at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. From 1998 to 2002, Shah served as a Research Analyst with the World Bank’s Human Development Network.


Timothy Samuel Shah serves as Vice President for Strategy and International Research and the Director of the South and Southeast Asia Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute. He is based in Bangalore, India, and serves as non-resident Research Professor of Government at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Until mid-2018, he served as Director for International Research at the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is a political scientist specializing in religious freedom as well as in the broad relationship between religious and political dynamics in theory, history, and contemporary practice. He has directed or co-directed numerous grant-funded collaborative research initiatives, including a Pew-funded study of evangelical Protestantism and politics that generated three volumes with Oxford University Press; a Harvard University-based study of religion and global politics; a study supported by the Templeton-funded Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs research initiative on Christianity and freedom; a multi-year standing seminar on religion and religious freedom and their relationship to human nature and human experience, which led to a volume published by Cambridge; and a study he co-directed with Daniel Philpott on contemporary Christian responses to persecution, which also led to a volume published by Cambridge. Shah is author of Even if There is No God: Hugo Grotius and the Secular Foundations of Modern Political Liberalism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2019); Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right (Witherspoon Institute, 2012); and, with Monica Duffy Toft and Daniel Philpott, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011). He is also editor of numerous volumes, including, with Daniel Philpott, Under Caesar’s Sword: Christian Responses to Persecution (Cambridge University Press, 2018); and with Jack Friedman, Homo Religiosus?: Exploring the Roots of Religion and Religious Freedom in Human Experience (Cambridge University Press, 2018). His articles on religion, religious freedom, and global politics, in history and in the contemporary world, have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Journal of Law and Religion, the Journal of Democracy, the Review of Politics, Fides et Historia, and elsewhere.

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Kelsey Zorzi serves as Director of Advocacy for Global Religious Freedom with ADF International. She leads efforts to address and counter global persecution against Christians and other religious minorities. Based in New York City, Zorzi engages with relevant UN and international bodies as well as U.S.-based institutions, including the U.S. State Department, U.S. Congress, and USCIRF, in order to reassert freedom of religion as foundational to the international human rights framework. In 2018, she was elected president of the United Nations’ NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Zorzi earned her J.D. at the George Washington University Law School, where she participated in the GW-Oxford International Human Rights Law Program and won first place in the 2013 National Religious Freedom Moot Court Competition. She is admitted to the state bars in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.



ADF International is a faith-based legal advocacy organization that protects fundamental freedoms and promotes the inherent dignity of all people. Working at an international level, we have a full-time presence at all the institutions of strategic international importance. We work alongside Member States at these organizations to protect the fundamental values they were founded to uphold. ADF International’s influence at these key institutions means we are instrumental in shaping policy around the world. On a national level, we work with local partners to provide training, funding, and legal advocacy to protect and promote religious freedom throughout Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Oceania.