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Building on 25 years of religious freedom advocacy


(RNS) — Something that by current standards would seem truly remarkable happened 25 years ago today: Washington worked in a bipartisan fashion to pass groundbreaking legislation to make the world a better place.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 equipped the United States with unprecedented tools to defend freedom of belief and conscience, set captives free and encourage reforms. As we reach IRFA’s silver anniversary, we should pause to realize the significance of the legislation, taking pride in American leadership and this unique diplomatic priority. But at the same time, we cannot rest, as the forces of persecution continue to victimize millions because of their beliefs. 

We remember the late 1990s as the height of American power and influence, but the passage of religious freedom legislation was far from certain. Competing bills and State Department hostility slowed efforts. Yet, thanks to leadership from then-Congressman Frank Wolf, R-Va., in the House, savvy drafting in the Senate by John Hanford, and the work of many others, something unexpected emerged. For the first time in human history, one country committed itself to promoting the religious freedoms of people in different nations. 

A quarter of a century later, however, global persecution continues while domestic battles around religious liberty have become increasingly partisan and high-profile. Conflating or confusing the two is worrisome, as arguments at home center on the scope of religious liberty, whereas overseas, religious freedom is about matters of life or death. 

To chart a better path, we convened a series of discussions at the U.S. Institute of Peace, asking how to ensure that religious freedom remains a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. In our conversations with experts and advocates spanning the political and religious spectrum, the domestic divides were present, but many shared our concerns. Importantly, all agreed on the need for the United States to stand up for the oppressed and persecuted. Our report concluded that a nonpartisan and holistic approach focused on religious rights for all can garner sustained bipartisan support. Consequently, we must protect international work from domestic polarization to secure and grow the global effort.

But new ideas are also needed in how the United States promotes religious freedom. A quarter century of work has demonstrated which approaches are effective and which inadvertently create greater vulnerability for those we seek to help. While the United States is willing to use sanctions to advance and safeguard religious freedom, human rights, the rule of law and political diversity, this is an area where IRFA needs reinvigoration and new ideas. Too often, policymakers seek waivers after naming nations to the “country of particular concern” blacklist. 

We also need to increase the religious IQ of U.S. officials. Other nations and adversaries manipulate religion, and several of America’s authoritarian rivals increasingly use faith to advance their agendas. The U.S. approach is different, as we recognize religious freedom as a vital element of liberal democracy, which stays true to American values and historic principles. But our diplomats, aid workers and service members need more training to engage effectively and within U.S. constitutional parameters. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s new policy on strategic religious engagement is a great start to charting this out.

Lastly, while religious freedom is a core American value, the United States cannot and should not do this alone. We should actively work with like-minded countries and seek opportunities to engage with civil society in fostering tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. Given the enormity of the challenge, promoters of religious freedom should seek to collaborate with others advocating for vulnerable groups. We need new alliances, such as partnering with repressed ethnic minorities or persecuted LGBTQI+ communities, as these communities of suffering face similar challenges and foes. 

Twenty-five years later, the problem of religious persecution is massive, with no easy or quick solutions. The Pew Research Center continues to document troublingly high restrictions on the free practice of faith worldwide, impacting all faith and belief communities. Despite the worrisome trend lines, U.S. advocacy has saved lives and improved repressive systems. Religious freedom promotion is an area where the U.S. has a distinctive track record that no other country can match. 

To meet the 21st century challenge of persecution, the United States needs to recommit itself to the priorities of the act and continue to innovate. We cannot stand still in the face of rising repression. In these divisive times, millions of the persecuted hope and pray the United States stays engaged and continues to lead. 

(Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the U.S. State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University and a senior visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Peter Mandaville served in the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs and the secretary of state’s policy planning staff during the Obama administration. He is senior adviser for religion and inclusive societies at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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