A desperately-needed global movement to push for religious freedom rights worldwide has begun, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said last Thursday at a United Nations event focused on religious freedom.
Hosted by the U.N. NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, an event titled International Religious Freedom: A New Era for Advocacy in Response to a New Age of Challenges and Threats was held at the U.N. headquarters in New York City last week.
Along with Brownback, respected religious freedom advocates from around the world were invited to speak about religious freedom issues impacting their communities.
The event was kicked off by moderator Monsignor Tomasz Grysa, the deputy permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N. He laid out the troubling landscape for religious freedom worldwide and said there has been a steady rise in persecution and discrimination against Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious followers across the globe.
Brownback, a former U.S. senator and governor of Kansas, followed Grysa by asking specifically why there continues to be an increase in religious persecution worldwide when most countries in the world have agreed to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is supposed to protect an individual’s right to religious freedom.
“Eighty percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously restricted atmosphere,” Brownback said. “How can we tolerate this continuing situation? You just heard a series of countries and places and faith communities that are in some sort of difficulty or persecuted when, in fact, they are guaranteed this right in most constitutions and by the U.N. Charter.”
“Why do we tolerate this situation?” the 62-year-old asked. “We need a global movement [for religious freedom]. The good news is one has started. It is starting here today.”
Brownback challenged those in attendance to create some kind of body that will incentivize countries to respect the religious freedom rights of its citizens.
As noted by Grysa, a 2018 U.N. report found that there are 24 nations with official state religions that impose “very high” or “high” levels of restrictions on religious practices while another 11 countries with “favored religions” have similar religious restrictions.
“This is something that needs to take place out of this body and out of people that are here to push for religious freedom,” Brownback contended.
“We need a global organization, maybe not out of the U.N. but out of some other place that has advantages [to joining]. There is a basic standard of religious freedom that [countries] must comply with [to get] the advantages of joining the organization and if you don’t comply [with minimum standards], there are teeth to it that … can be used to remove the benefits that you have.”
Brownback stressed that there are “dire situations” facing many religious minority communities in countries that have agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such examples are the 1 million Uighurs imprisoned in China and the nearly 1 million Rohingyas pushed out of their homelands by security forces in Myanmar in an apparent genocide.
Brownback also mentioned injustices facing religious minorities in Iran and the genocide perpetrated against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq by the Islamic State.
“We need your advocacy. The situation is dire and we can’t just keep talking about it,” Brownback told the international community as he pounded on the table. “We got to do something. We need to have carrots and teeth associated with it.”
Brownback then detailed the movement that is already taking shape across the globe to push for more religious freedom.
In addition to the U.S. State Department hosting its second-annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 16-18, Brownback said that a series of regional religious freedom summits kicked off in February.
The first one was held in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, last month.
“The topic was textbook materials,” said Brownback, who attended the summit. “Because unfortunately in a number of countries [such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan], the textbooks will put in material and even hateful toward religious minorities. This has to stop where governments are actually funding textbooks to persecute religious minorities or put in the minds of young people that the persecution is fine.”
Brownback said that another regional religious freedom summit will take place on March 10-12 in Taiwan. That gathering will focus on bringing together civil society groups in order to talk about what they can do to advocate for religious freedom in their countries.
The ambassador added that there will likely be a future regional summit in the African nation of Morocco that will focus on the importance of preserving religious heritage sites. Brownback warned that such sites are being destroyed because of their faith orientations.
The East Asian nation of Mongolia also plans to host a regional summit primarily of Buddhist majority countries, while another regional summit will likely be held in Europe.
“I appreciate and support strongly the efforts of countries here at the U.N. to start a ‘Friends of Freedom of Religion or Belief’ group here at the United Nations,” Brownback said. “I understand Poland is leading that effort and that Hungary is going to be a part of it and hopefully others will join that effort to push for religious freedom at the United Nations.”
Brownback said that the U.S. is working with six different countries that are launching their own religious freedom roundtables similar to the one hosted by the U.S. government every week.
In Washington, D.C., religious freedom advocates gather every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. to discuss religious freedom topics with Brownback on Capitol Hill.
Countries looking to launch their own roundtable are Iraq, South Korea, Taiwan, Hungary and Kazakhstan. According to Brownback, those roundtables will hopefully spark advocacy groups in those countries to advocate for religious freedom.
“We just got to do this,” Brownback said. “The situation is deadly in many places around the world. There are people imprisoned for their faith that should not be there. There is deadly violence that happens on the street in social settings toward minority religions in way too many countries.”
Additionally, a group of parliamentarians who support religious freedom has launched the informal cross-party group All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief to push for religious freedom worldwide.
Thomas Farr, president of the Washington-based think tank Religious Freedom Institute who also served as the first director of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom, said during the event that there were “very few civil society organizations fighting for international religious freedom” when he first began his career in religious freedom advocacy.
“There were even fewer governments engaged in that fight,” Farr stated in his written remarks. “Today, happily, that situation is changing. In 2019 there are literally scores of civil society organizations working in the field. And more governments are incorporating religious freedom into their respective foreign policies.”
Grysa explained that because of the rise of religious intolerance and oppression in the world, "the protection of the right to religious freedom must be one of the most urgent responsibilities of the international community."