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Biden, Trump officials headline bipartisan religious freedom summit 2021: 'Fundamental human right'

Asia Bibi, Andrew Brunson, Mariam Ibraheem among other confirmed speakers

sam brownback, ministerial to advance religious freedom
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback welcomes participants and speakers at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held at the U.S. Department of State in Washington D.C. on July 16-18, 2019. |

A bipartisan three-day summit of persecuted religious minorities, advocates and politicians kicks off Tuesday in Washington, D.C., seeking to continue the momentum established by the U.S. State Department's two ministerials promoting religious freedom worldwide.  

Co-chaired by former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, the gathering will bring together individuals from over 30 faith traditions and increase the “public awareness and political strength for the international religious freedom movement.”

Featuring dozens of plenary speakers, the conference will be held at the historic Omni Shoreham Hotel and has a “virtual option for participation.” 

Among the notable speakers slated to provide remarks and special messages are House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Dalai Lama, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Executive Director Melissa Rogers, and USAID faith-based office director Adam Phillips.

Other confirmed speakers include Pakistani Christian mother Asia Bibi, who spent nearly a decade on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan; Mariam Ibraheem, a Sudanese Christian sentenced to death for apostasy in Sudan; civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who was placed under house arrest in China for his activism; and Christian Boko Haram survivor Joy Bishara.  

“Once again, the energy around religious freedom has far exceeded our expectations,” said Brownback. “This freedom is a fundamental, universal human right that is essential to personal and societal flourishing. We’re amazed and humbled by the incredible commitment of people from all over the world who will join us — many of whom are risking their lives by doing so — to advocate for religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, all the time.”

Brownback told The Christian Post in an interview that the summit aims to “widen the set of relationships that people have in pushing religious freedom and to bring more visibility and support to the topic.” 

“It’s better for a Muslim to stand up for religious freedom in the Middle East,” where they are in the majority. He stressed that “we need Christians standing up in places where they’re a majority and Jewish people to stand up for religious freedom where they’re in a majority.”

The former U.S. senator and Trump State Department official expressed a desire to establish “more of those cross-religion relationships standing up for each other’s religious freedom,” describing that goal as a “key piece of what this summit will try to pursue.”

A summit charter titled "A Charter of Religious Freedom" was released ahead of the summit declaring that "every government, every religious community, and every political and civil society organization in the world should strive toward the goal of achieving freedom of religion and conscience, for everyone, everywhere — protected by law and valued by culture."

“I’m doing this because I think we need to have civil society-led religious freedom summits here and around the world,” Brownback told CP. “I think we need to do these where they’re not dependent on who’s in authority in the government. The civil society groups support religious freedom year in, year out, regardless of … who holds the presidency, and we need that consistency of effort and message by civil society and religious groups.”

Brownback warned that “if we don’t get religious freedom for everybody, we will see a clash of civilizations."

"And we’ll see it increasingly in the world,” he said. 

The summit follows in the footsteps of the Trump State Department's ministerials advancing religious freedom in 2018 and 2019. The events were touted as the largest religious freedom summits in world history. They took place as Brownback served as head of the State Department's International Religious Freedom Office, which he stepped down from when President Joe Biden took office. 

“I didn’t think it [was] appropriate for me to stay … and I wasn’t offered to stay. So … I wasn’t going to stay, and I wasn’t asked to stay,” he recalled.

He praised the Biden administration for continuing to “deem the treatment of the Uyghurs genocide” in China while expressing hope that the administration appoints someone to serve in his former role soon. 

Brownback touted the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit as “the first of an annual International Religious Freedom Summit led by society.” He explained that the event is "sold out on tickets."

Considering coronavirus restrictions, he said that the “capacity of the place was right above 800,” indicating that hundreds of people will likely convene for the summit.

In addition to co-chairs Katrina Lantos Swett and Brownback, a bipartisan group of lawmakers serve as honorary co-chairs of the summit.

Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and James Lankford, R-Okla., are the honorary Senate co-chairs, while Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, hold the roles of honorary House co-chairs. 

According to summit’s schedule, Tuesday will serve as congressional advocacy day, and Wednesday will feature several plenary sessions and side events.

Wednesday will begin with remarks from Asia Bibi, who was acquitted from Pakistan's death row in 2018. She will share “her testimony of persecution and triumph” at a breakfast sponsored by the Barnabas Fund.

Pelosi will give a video address at a panel discussing “Big Surveillance and the Rise of Technology in Persecution.” Pompeo and Power will serve as keynote speakers in a panel titled “Addressing Genocide: Preventing and Recovering from Religious Cleansing.”

Other speakers at that event will include Rep. Smith and former Congressman and religious freedom advocate Frank Wolf, the namesake of the 2016 Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. 

Wednesday morning’s events will conclude with a panel on refugee protection, which will feature a keynote address from Biden White House official Rogers. The afternoon plenary session will include a discussion highlighting the founders of the international religious freedom movement. David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, is among the speakers for that panel.

Another panel for Wednesday’s afternoon plenary session will address the “legal structures of persecution and religious discrimination,” which will include testimony from Bibi. The day will wrap up with a dinner hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, focusing on the “rising persecution in Nigeria.”

Thursday’s morning plenary session will include a speech from Andrew Brunson, a pastor imprisoned in Turkey, about the “rising tide of religious nationalism.” The panel discussion will include remarks from Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. 

The final afternoon of the summit will consist of several breakout sessions with events hosted by groups including Barnabas Aid, In Defense of Christians, the Hudson Institute and ADF International. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, will headline the closing dinner as the keynote speaker, where “IRF Hero Awards” will be distributed. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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