Last month the U.S. State Department joined with religious and political leaders from around the globe for the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The three-day event was convened to identify concrete means to “push back against persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”
“We were as inclusive as possible because we wanted to include everyone of every faith or no faith at all, everyone who cares about religious freedom and who will join us in this cause,” said Sam Brownback, the former Kansas governor and U.S. senator who now serves as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. “Religious freedom really, truly is for everyone. It’s a right given by God and it’s a beautiful part of our human dignity.”
I recently talked to Ambassador Brownback to discuss the ministerial, global persecution, and what Christians in America can do to promote international religious freedom.
What should the role of religious freedom be in American foreign policy?
Religious freedom should be a basic human right. The United States stands for human rights, and this is a basic piece of it. Religious freedom should occupy a key and strong position in our foreign policy. I think what you saw the administration announcing last week was that this is going to be a big piece of our foreign policy, and we’re going to stand firm with it, and we’re going to push on it. A couple of programs were announced at the event associated with religious freedom, and it’s going to be an aggressive piece of our foreign policy.
When it comes to persecution and limitations on religious freedom, what are some of the areas of particular concern?
The concerns range from subtle to deadly—and we’re concerned about all of them.
We’re concerned about people’s limitation on dress, and we’re concerned when people get killed by governments because they’re not part of the majority faith. We believe strongly in religious freedom and that the government’s role is to protect the right of religious freedom for the individual. The government’s role is not to pick a winner or loser. It’s not to persecute one group. The government’s role is to protect the right to religious freedom. This is basic to the United States.
It also helps reduce the amount of terrorism and grow economic activity in countries. Religious freedom has multiple goods. The things we’re concerned about include the full range of activities and actions taken by governments, both in what they do or, in some cases, what they don’t do. In some cases governments are not protecting religious minorities from the religious majorities, and the people end up getting killed by mob violence. We’re concerned about that too.
You recently hosted the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. What can you tell us about that event and what its purpose?
We had more than 80 countries attend the first-ever religious freedom ministerial. We think it was a tremendous success. On this topic, most people around the world agree in the abstract. They see religious freedom is a good concept, and it’s something that people are entitled to. But then they won’t practice in the specific. More than 75 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with substantial religious restrictions. We want to change that. We want to see the openings happen. As I declared at the end of the Ministerial the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down. The United States is pushing this aggressively.
We now have a number of allies in different countries that pledged to work on this too. They’ve pledged more religious freedom ambassadors, regional religious freedom summits, funds to help promote religious freedom, and so on. There are a number of action items that came out of this, including the Potomac Declaration, which a number of countries signed on to, outlining what we agreed to do to promote religious freedom.
It’s all based on what we believe is a God-given right to religious freedom, a right most countries affirmed in the 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights.
What can Christians in America do to promote religious freedom around the world?
There are several things they can do. Find a country or multiple countries they have an interest in and start tracking what’s taking place in that country. Maybe it’s China or Iran or Saudi Arabia.
They can contact a legislator if something is happening in a particular country to make sure their representatives are aware of it, and that it continues to be raised in foreign policy circles in the United States.
Christians certainly need to be praying for those countries, and that religious freedom will take place. They can support various religious freedom groups that operate in countries we’re concerned about.
We had a number of sidebar events at the ministerial of non-governmental organizations that work for religious freedom. Christian can get engaged and work with those groups as well.