Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain spoke at the launch of Open Doors’ World Watch List report last week. Last month, the Senate confirmed Hussain in an 85-5 vote. He is assuming office at a time when government restrictions on religion across the globe remain at a peak, according to the Pew Research Center. During his confirmation hearing, Hussain noted, “A staggering 80 percent of people worldwide live in environments with high or severe restrictions on religious freedom.” The challenges are great, but so are the opportunities.
The need for the US government to promote international religious freedom has never been more pronounced. In 2021 alone, the rise of the Taliban after Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan endangered religious minorities; the US State Department removed its Country of Particular Concern (CPC) designation from Nigeria despite that country continuing to tolerate consistent attacks against rural Christian villagers; and the United States officially determined that the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uighur Muslim population.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tries to downplay the importance of religious freedom. But the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) sought to prioritize religious freedom in US foreign policy and established mechanisms to do so. Those mechanisms include the role Hussain now occupies. Despite warring priorities within the administration, Hussain’s mandate to elevate the plight of the persecuted is vital. Here are three ways that the new ambassador can quickly begin to make a difference.
1. Bring back the annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
In 2018, the Trump administration held the first annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a gathering of hundreds of state leaders “to discuss the challenges facing religious freedom, identify means to address religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and promote greater respect and preservation of religious liberty for all.” In 2019, the second ministerial was even bigger and better than the first. It highlighted at least one major success story: American missionary Andrew Brunson’s release from imprisonment in Turkey following US government pressure. The year before, Brunson’s daughter had spoken at the ministerial, advocating on his behalf. But in 2019, Brunson was free to speak himself and advocated for others. The global platform that the ministerial created is critical, and Brunson testifies to that fact.
These events were widely viewed as a successful effort to encourage world leaders to promote religious freedom and provided opportunities to brainstorm effective ways to do that. Over the past few years, other countries have taken up the torch to hold a ministerial on religious freedom, but these events have been mostly virtual and scaled-down. The problem of religious persecution hasn’t scaled down, and the attention that world leaders pay to this issue shouldn’t either. It’s time for the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to return to Washington, DC. Former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback was instrumental in spearheading this impactful event. Ambassador Hussain should do the same.
2. Don’t shy away from the hard cases.
Hussain is the first Muslim to serve as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and advocates hope his former work as US special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will give him additional opportunities to engage Muslim leaders on religious freedom. The Muslim world is struggling with many religious freedom challenges, including the prevalence of blasphemy and apostasy laws. Blasphemy laws prohibit insults to religion, while apostasy laws generally punish people who “apostatize” and convert away from Islam. They represent grave violations of freedom of expression and religion. The international religious freedom movement has struggled to make headway on this issue, but Hussain’s experience working with Muslim leaders may offer unique opportunities to work toward the repeal of blasphemy and apostasy laws in Muslim-majority countries.
US officials have largely neglected some religious freedom cases, which are perceived as being controversial. But it’s the job of entities like the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the State Department’s Office on International Religious Freedom (which Hussain now leads) to promote religious freedom, not avoid controversy.
One situation exemplifying this fact is the case of Finnish member of parliament Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola. Räsänen has been charged with three counts of “ethnic agitation”: once for a 2019 tweet featuring a Bible verse questioning the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) decision to participate in a gay pride parade, once for comments made on a radio show in 2019 about human sexuality, and once for a 23-page booklet that he authored in 2004 titled “Male and Female He Created Them.” For publishing this booklet, Bishop Pohjola is also being charged with one count of “ethnic agitation.” The rights to religious freedom and freedom of expression are at stake for individuals, and this high-profile case will set the bar for what religious freedom violations might be tolerated across Europe. USCIRF has shied away from speaking up for Räsänen. However, Finland’s status as a Western democracy should not exempt its government from scrutiny, and the fact that Räsänen’s case touches on controversial LGBT themes does not justify ignoring the Finnish prosecutors’ attack on her religious freedom. Hussain should speak up for Räsänen and all other people who are denied their fundamental right to religious freedom.
3. Work within the administration to utilize available tools to promote religious freedom.
The US government has a variety of tools at its disposal to promote human rights, but it is up to the personnel to use them. Hussain can help activate many of these tools by making his voice heard within the Biden administration. For example, while some Afghans were given Priority 2 (P-2) refugee admission status, religious minorities were not, even though they were under direct threat from the Taliban. Hussain should advocate on behalf of Afghan religious minorities and work within the administration to extend P-2 status to them.
Similarly, Hussain can work within the administration to identify foreign individuals responsible for religious freedom violations who deserve to be sanctioned, either under IRFA sanctions or Global Magnitsky sanctions. Global Magnitsky sanctions are among the most effective US government tools to promote human rights, yet they are rarely used against violators of religious freedom. This needs to change.
At the launch of Open Doors’ World Watch List, Ambassador Hussain articulated the importance of religious freedom: “This goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to think freely, to follow our conscience, to change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, to express those beliefs in public and private.” He’s right—religious freedom is core to humanity, making the job of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom a critically important one. Here’s hoping Ambassador Hussain will do his job well.