The State Department’s Ministerial on Religious Freedom: Reflections and the Path Ahead

International religious freedom is having a moment.

Last week, the State Department, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, convened the first-ever “Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom” in Washington, D.C. The three-day event brought together faith leaders, civil society representatives, and government officials from around the world to share stories, hear from survivors of religious persecution, and discuss ways of moving forward. At the end, Secretary Pompeo released the Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action. Both reaffirm the United States’ commitment to religious freedom and recommend concrete ways to advance this important right and protect vulnerable religious communities around the world.

Nothing like this Ministerial has ever been convened before and it represents a small but important shift in US foreign policy thinking. Twenty years ago, when Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the intent was to prioritize religious freedom in US foreign policy. But in the two decades since, it was treated more as a pariah. That has finally begun to change.

I was privileged to attend the Ministerial in my role as Senior Adviser for Human Rights with In Defense of Christians. I came away more informed and encouraged but with a heavy appreciation for the challenges we face.

Religious freedom and foreign policy

Historically, if religious freedom issues played a role in American foreign policy, it was often rhetorical. The right of religious people to freely worship and exercise their faith was certainly important to policymakers but frequently took a back seat to issues like national security, counterterrorism, and economic growth.

But emerging research has begun to validate the intuition of the IRFA’s framers. The presence, or absence, of religious freedom in a society is a key determinant of other policy priorities. Countries that protect religious freedom tend to be more stable and prosperous while countries that restrict religious freedom experience higher levels of civil and religious conflict.

These evidence-based insights present a new opportunity for American diplomats: persuading governments around the world that religious freedom is not only a moral and social good but also in their self-interest. At last week’s Ministerial, it was clear that State Department officials, particularly Ambassador Brownback, see this as an emerging tool in US foreign policy efforts.

If that’s the “carrot,” there’s also the “stick.” On the first day of the Ministerial, participants heard from the daughter of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been unjustly imprisoned in Turkey for two years. Within hours of her remarks, Turkish officials transferred Pastor Brunson to house arrest – a hopeful development. Then later in the week, President Trump tweeted that Turkey would face “large sanctions” if it didn’t fully release Pastor Brunson, comments echoed by Vice President Pence.

This is extraordinary. For high-level US officials to publicly threaten a NATO ally with sanctions over a prisoner of conscience is unprecedented. True, there are other good reasons for the United States to put pressure on the Turkish regime. But it does show the importance the Trump administration places on religious freedom issues.

Data: the next frontier?

Science can help advance religious freedom in other ways. Over the next decade, data will play an increasingly important role in foreign policy efforts. Right now, data on religious freedom and persecution is used to categorize and rank countries on levels of religious restriction, to map religious demography, and to direct humanitarian aid to communities and areas in need.

The next frontier is to use data predictively to create a sort of “atrocities early warning system.” The challenge is to develop data sources and methods to monitor religious persecution in more or less real time, predict emerging “hot spots” of persecution, and then work to prevent violence before it occurs or escalates. This isn’t a new idea, but new technologies may breathe new life into it. Social media is a potentially powerful data source (though it comes with its own risks and drawbacks). Emerging AI engines may offer predictive insights into religiously motivated behavior, including religious conflict. Undoubtedly, there are other data sources and tools that could be brought to bear on these issues.

So we need new participants to join the conversation. In addition to the usual cadre of religious leaders and legal and policy experts, we need computer scientists, social scientists, app developers, and data analysts. In this area, innovative thinking may help solve some age-old problems.

The power of stories

Finally, we need to be better storytellers. We must of course tell the stories of persecution. We need to know what’s happening to religious communities around the world — those who share our faith and those who don’t. At the Ministerial, I was struck not only by the wide diversity of faith traditions represented (the variety of religious garb was truly impressive), but also by the fact that the State Department created genuine space — a literal open mic — for participants to inform, lobby, persuade, and tell their stories. This builds empathy and solidarity. Let’s have more of it.

But we also need to tell the stories of triumph and hope. Government officials need to explain where and why policy efforts are working to reduce persecution and advance religious freedom. And faith leaders must come with more than requests for American and international aid (critical though that is). They need to sow seeds of hope: stories from their own communities, of individuals and families, including those for whom aid efforts are making a real difference.

On the final day of the conference, Secretary Pompeo announced that a second Ministerial will be held next year. In the face of the serious challenges we’re confronting, I am optimistic we’ll see progress on international religious freedom in the months ahead.

Ian Speir is a Contributing Editor with Providence, a Senior Adviser for Human Rights with In Defense of Christians, and a First Amendment attorney based in Colorado Springs.

Photo Credit: US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers closing remarks with Ambassador Brownback at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 26, 2018 at the U.S. Department of State, in Washington, D.C., via State Department Photo/Public Domain

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