As the United States continues its political transition, many in the human rights advocacy community anxiously await tangible signs, beyond rhetoric, that the cause of international religious freedom will remain a policy priority for the Biden administration.
However, there is good cause for hope, despite the sweeping change in party control in both the executive and legislative branches of government. When examining key efforts by the federal government to address international religious persecution, bipartisanship is clearly evident.
Christian persecution has reached unprecedented levels and is steadily on the rise. The 2021 Open Doors USA report reflects this trend and provides alarming figures. One in eight Christians worldwide faces extreme levels of persecution. Christians are targeted for their faith in countries like Nigeria, where a genocide of Christians is occurring openly and unchecked, and Pakistan, which is known for its notorious blasphemy laws. In Iraq, political instability, Iranian-backed militias, and ever-increasing Turkish aggression continues to threaten Christians.
This is not a new phenomenon, nor will it be resolved absent major commitment from the international community. Historically, the United States has carried the mantle in the fight against religious persecution, owing to support from both sides of the aisle.
Most notable in this bipartisan effort is the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, which was groundbreaking, bipartisan legislation, introduced by Senator Don Nickles (R-OK) and Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). IRFA expanded upon the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act of 1997, introduced by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). IRFA elevated international religious freedom to a key US foreign policy priority.
Today, many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle actively champion legislation that supports persecuted Christian communities worldwide.
Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), emerging figures on opposite ends of the political spectrum and representing very different constituencies, both fervently stand against religious persecution. The 2020 In Defense of Christians Digital Summit featured a bipartisan group of over a dozen other members of Congress who expressed ardent support.
Bipartisan support has extended beyond the realm of political rhetoric into policy. Notably, in 2019, Congress passed House Resolution 296, affirming the United States’ position on the Armenian Genocide, which garnered the support of 405 representatives. The Senate followed suit by unanimous vote.
With respect to the transition from the Trump to Biden administration, advocates must remain flexible, receptive, and responsive to changes in methodology on the issue of international religious freedom. As Toufic Baaklini, president of In Defense of Christians, noted, “even if curbing Christian persecution isn’t high on the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda, through our efforts, we’ll make it a priority.”
It stands to reason that President Biden’s long-time service in the Senate and subsequent role as vice president have provided him with an acute understanding and appreciation of the issues facing persecuted religious minorities.
As an American, I know with absolute certainty that as long as we continue to steadfastly advocate for the issues that we hold near and dear, our voices will be heard. Our fellow citizens are not our foes—they may simply hold views that differ from our own.
Let us put down our party banners and unite under the common banner of our collective humanity, and protect the 340 million Christians who face persecution annually. As a nation, we must not view such a critical human issue through a partisan lens, as religious persecution is an attack on human conscience, regardless of political affiliation. The Islamic State jihadists did not ask Iraqi and Syrian Christians whom they voted for prior to carrying out acts of genocide, and neither should we ask American citizens the same when advocating for these ancient and vulnerable Christian communities.
Conservative, liberal, and apolitical Christians all have the same Gospel. Even nonbelievers are compelled by an appeal to humanity. The persecution of any faith group is a violation of basic human rights, and as Americans we must remain committed to ending this injustice. Religious liberty is addressed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution for a reason—it is our first freedom.
This new year has ushered in a new administration and a different dynamic in Congress, but the same issues remain. At a time when our country grows more politically divided, the wide consensus on this just cause can, and should, be a unifying influence. As the fight for international religious freedom continues, let us remember the mantra of President Joseph R. Biden: “We are not enemies; we are Americans.”