The Growing International Movement for Religious Freedom


Around the world, people from all walks of life are pressuring their governments to defend victims of religious persecution. 

On June 15, 1215, in a field called Runnymede by the banks of the river Thames, the English barons and the archbishop of Canterbury looked on as the king of England’s seal was affixed to the Magna Carta.  King John, having lost Normandy to France and facing a French claim to his throne, as well as having undergone a damaging dispute with Pope Innocent III over ecclesiastical elections, found himself forced to concede to the demands of his barons to secure his throne. 

This week, 806 years later, in the shadow of Big Ben, the United Kingdom Foreign Office hosted a fourth ministerial gathering focused on religious freedom, and the first such in-person gathering to happen outside of the United States. A ministerial is an official gathering of foreign ministers to address an issue of general concern. The conference brought government officials, religious leaders, and activists from around the world to London to raise cases of persecution based on religion or belief. 

Attending this gathering, two stark realities emerged. First, governments around the world are perpetrating horrific persecution against people of faith. But second, it is clear that there is a dedicated community of people from all walks of life relentlessly pressuring their governments to defend victims of religious persecution. 

The ministerial sessions included a litany of reports on states around the world and their oppression of people of faith. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has some two million Uyghurs in concentration camps to advance the party’s thinly veiled goal of sanitizing the region of the Uyghur Muslim faith, which they see as a threat to their ability to wield complete control over the people of Xinjing. Christians and Falun Gong are also being targeted for their faith by the CCP. 

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In Pakistan, the government uses the court system to enforce draconian anti-blasphemy laws against non-Muslims. In Afghanistan, the new Taliban religious regime is ruthlessly hunting down members of religious-minority groups like Hazara Muslims. 

In Nigeria, Christians who simply want to pray on Sunday are the target of organized radical Islamic terrorism that the country’s government seems unwilling to effectively combat. Even in the West, a place where religious freedom has been assumed safe, a member of Finish Parliament has been taken to court by her own government for publicly stating her orthodox Christian beliefs about gender and marriage. 

In fact, government violations of religious freedom are so ubiquitous that listing governments that are not violators is a considerably simpler task than listing those that are. Yet, while governments are often the worst perpetrators of religious persecution, governments can also be made to protect and promote religious freedom. Indeed, without support from government, this core right would be unable to stand against those powers that wish to limit it. But state power will not do so naturally, it must be made to defend this right. 

British Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Elizabeth Truss, the U.K. foreign minister, spoke to the ministerial gathering on Tuesday invoking the first clause of the Magna Carta, which states:

FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired.

This extraordinary first clause is an example of how concerted effort can be used to bend government institutions to protect religious freedom. The ministerial hosted in London this week is an example of this in action. It was not a project eagerly embraced by the Foreign Office. Quite the opposite; it was a handful of dedicated members of Parliament with a small army of civil-society advocates that gained the support of the prime minister and brought the project to successful completion. It is a demonstration yet again that governments must be swayed to protect religious freedom.  

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By the same token, it was not the good will of a U.S. president that created a State Department International Religious Freedom Ambassadorship, but an act of Congress. The State Department had never held an International Religious Freedom ministerial when Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Sam Brownback directed their staff to organize and host the first one in 2018. The second in 2019 was the largest human rights event ever held at Foggy Bottom. 

The United Nations had never hosted a religious-freedom-focused session as part of the General Assembly before President Trump decided to host such a session, much to the chagrin of many bureaucrats. There is now a multilateral alliance of 36 countries to protect and promote freedom of religious belief around the world. Such a partnership was only reluctantly accepted by international institutions and members of the international system. 

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It is agency of critical individuals, guided by a commitment to freedom of conscience, that is needed to promote and protect religious freedom. 

This has been a long journey for many in the international religious-freedom movement, from being generally disregarded to having a seat at the foreign-policy table. It took champions in Congress like Rep. Frank Wolf, with the vision to build government infrastructure through legislation. It took bold scholars and activists like Katrina Lantos Swett, Mary Ann Glendon, and Robby George serving on the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission, a government-established watchman to report on the status of religious freedom around the world, to build the Commission into a powerful voice to the U.S. government on behalf of the persecuted. Now there is an apparatus within the U.S. government and the international community that is collectively elevating this fundamental right.

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Members of the international system, who are much happier talking about sustainable development, find themselves confronted with concerns of conscience. The Brazilian government has recently announced it will host a 2023 ministerial, demonstrating that yet another government has been brought to support religious freedom. Though we will never achieve utopia in this world, U.K. Foreign Minister Liz Truss was right to see a through-line between the signing of the Magna Carta on banks of the Thames so many years ago and the gathering this week by that same river. 

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