Pompeo and Pelosi show nonpartisan importance of religious freedom
WASHINGTON, DC — Trump and Biden administration officials and Republican and Democratic members of Congress displayed unity of purpose here Wednesday at the IRF’s second annual International Religious Freedom Summit.
They agreed on the need to fight hatred, discrimination, genocide and other violence against religious people around the world.
“The United States will continue to champion religious freedom around the world,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a member of President Biden’s cabinet.
“Religious freedom is fundamental to a free society,” said Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration’s last secretary of state.
That kind of bipartisanship is exactly what the IRF summit is about, said co-chairs Sam Brownback and Katrina Lantos Swett, who both previously served as U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. They modeled it as they kicked off the summit together on stage in a conference room at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown DC
The IRF summit unexpectedly dropped five days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and two days after the court ruled a high school football coach had the right to pray in midfield after games. Some on Twitter and other social platforms said the decisions were divisive. Summit speakers sought common ground.
Brownback is a Republican, former Trump appointee, and former governor and U.S. senator from Kansas. Swett is a Democrat, a former Obama appointee and Senate staffer for Biden.
“Our simple motto is religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, all the time,” said Brownback, a Catholic who has also called religious freedom “the most violated human right in the world today.”
“This is an entirely nonpartisan issue,” said Swett, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Everyone – Democrat and Republican, right and left and center – came together to defend this fundamental right.”
Blinken and several other government and religious leaders have said it is a right that should also apply to those who are not religious.
“Freedom of religion is a human right. It’s a core part of who we are,” said Blinken, who like Pompeo appeared at the conference via video. “Follow the belief system you adopt, or choose not to follow any belief system at all.”
Republicans and Democrats are also modeling bipartisanship on the issue in Congress.
“The United States has a vital role to play in bringing to light religious freedom violations around the world, and we are working to make that happen,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
For example, the Senate and House passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act six months ago to protect Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. The law establishes the US policy that all products made in Xinjiang are made with forced labor and directs the President of the United States to impose penalties on people who use forced Muslim labor.
The vote was unanimous in the Senate and 428 to 1 in the House.
A similar overwhelming bipartisan vote under the Trump administration led to the passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.
Rubio on Wednesday announced ongoing bipartisan cooperation on religious freedom.
“I am pleased to announce that we have a bipartisan agreement to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom so that it can continue its important work of exposing violations of religious freedom around the world.” he said in a short video presentation at the top.
“The commission is absolutely necessary,” he said. “In the past year alone, it has helped us identify how conflict and chaos have led to (religious freedom) violations in Afghanistan, Ukraine and beyond.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken): “Like all of you at this gathering, the United States has a deep and steadfast commitment to protecting and promoting religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. Freedom of religion is a human right…” 1/2 #IRFSummit2022 @Deseret
— Tad Walch (@Tad_Walch) June 29, 2022
The specter of murder, execution, forced organ harvesting, rape, imprisonment and other consequences of religious intolerance loomed over the conference.
Booths in the hallways of the Renaissance Hotel conference center drew attention to the persecution of religious people around the world. A hallway included banners highlighting specific people killed or imprisoned for their beliefs.
“Every two hours, a Nigerian Christian is killed,” warned a video from Samaritans Purse during the conference’s second main session.
Speakers pleaded for help and understanding for the plight of their people, such as Salima Mazari, a former district governor in Afghanistan who spoke of the Taliban’s persecution of her Hazara people.
Pompeo presented a panel discussion on the national security implications of religious persecution. Religious freedom is inseparable from other fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press, several speakers said.
“Religious freedom is a harbinger of things to come. It’s the canary in the mine of what’s to come in the future” in any given country, said panelist Lord David Alton.
“If you don’t understand the state of religious freedom in a country, then you don’t understand much about it,” he added. “If you understand it, you have a pretty good idea of the state of this country.”
He called religious freedom an “orphan right” in the world and said religious illiteracy leads to massive destabilization in the world, Lord Alton said. This includes its role as a motivating factor for many more than 70 million refugeeshe said.
The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that every person has the right to believe, the right not to believe, and the right to change their belief. The violation of these rights has consequences for any country, he said.
“It behooves governments, if they are truly interested in the common good, to understand religious communities. If they don’t understand them, they’re going to struggle,” said Andrew Bennett of the Religious Freedom Institute, who was Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom.
However, the US State Department latest international report on religious freedomreleased earlier this month, showed that many countries continue to suppress religious freedom.
“Far too many governments are undeterred in their repression of their citizens,” said Rashad Hussain, U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.
“First, governments continue to use discriminatory laws and policies to mistreat their own people. Second, growing social intolerance and hatred fuel violence and conflict around the world. And third, effective collaboration between governments, multilateral partners, and civil society…has led to positive change and provides hope for addressing these complex challenges.
Brownback said religious freedom offers solutions to national ills. Religions can also help each other.
“Religion is the only entity that can stand up to government that government cannot control,” he said.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared via video to present a panel on the impact of religious freedom violations against women around the world. She said attacks on religious freedom have a harsh and disproportionate impact on women.
“This injustice has taken many sickening forms around the world,” Pelosi said, adding that “all freedom-loving people have an obligation” to stand up for religious freedom.
Repeated calls for unity of purpose between religions, governments and other sectors of civil society were calls for changing cultures, both within religions and in society at large, the speakers said.
“Some people are terrible to each other based on their faith. We have to be open about it,” said Allison Ralph of the Religion and Society program at the Aspen Institute. doesn’t serve us well. Religion is a minefield of individual and collective hurt. If we can’t talk about it, we can’t solve any of these problems. It’s about changing our culture so that we can move forward together.
Brownback said the IRF summit is a way to inspire change.
“It’s a summit of friendship,” he said. “Choose a project. Choose several projects and start working together.
Other leaders issued a similar note.
“I am grateful to everyone here today for their leadership and dedication to the cause of religious freedom,” Rubio said. “I look forward to continuing to work together to ensure everyone has the right to pray safely and peacefully.”
The summit continues Thursday with a full day of panel discussions.
The summit concludes with a gala which will include the presentation of the IRF Impact Awards and a conversation between Swett and former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom. Kanter Freedom is a practicing Muslim and religious rights activist.