The government of China is harvesting hearts, kidneys, lungs, and skin from minority religious groups, including Uighur Muslims and members of the Falun Gong. Attacks against religious minorities in Hindu-majority India has risen steadily under Prime Minister Modi since 2014. Since August 2005, more than 1,234 Bahá’ís have been arrested in Iran solely because of their religious beliefs. In 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed “anti-terrorism” legislation that criminalizes believers sharing their faith in homes, online or anywhere besides recognized religious buildings, which has led to widespread persecution of religious minorities, including the outright banning Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist group”.
In fact, nearly 80% of the world’s population lives in nations where religious freedom is threatened or banned.
It is with this backdrop that the United States hosted a meeting during the United Nations General Assembly entitled, “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom.” The discussion touted the US Government’s initiatives to advance freedom of religion and belief globally, including an infusion of an additional $25 million to protect religious freedom and religious sites and relics, humanitarian aid to help Christians and Yazidis who suffered at the hands of ISIS and to help Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing persecution, the establishment of International Religious Freedom Alliance – an alliance of nations dedicated to confronting religious persecution around the world – and the hosting of two Religious Freedom Ministerials.
While it is to be applauded that the United States Government is paying lip service to international freedom of religion and belief, questions remain about the effectiveness of the State Department’s policies and actions regarding religious freedom. Critics were quick to ask where and how the additional $25 million dollars would be spent: does protecting religious sites and relics mean that US troops would be deployed to sites like the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu to protect the Tombouctou Manuscripts; would the funds be used to provide security training for Afghan military and police to protect the 42 Buddhist relics discovered in Mes Aynak of the Logar Province in Afghanistan, south of Kabul; will those funds be used to transcribe into digital format the ancient writings discovered in the library of the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai in Egypt; or will the funds be used to host another conference discussing religious freedom or another site visit by the staff of the Office of International Religious Freedom of the State Department?
In the grand scheme of things, $25 million is a drop in the ocean when it comes to a systemic approach to advancing religious freedom and combatting religious discrimination and persecution. Missing from the event was a strategy on how those funds would be used and whether they would just be funneled into already questionably effective religious freedom mechanisms.
Since Congress unanimously passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 – which created the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom currently headed by former Kansas Governor Sam Brownback – religious freedom around the globe has worsened and religious discrimination and persecution have increased. Since the passage of IRFA US Administrations have been restrained in their use of sanctions authorized under the act, in some cases even removing countries from list of Countries of Particular Concern for Severe Violations of Religious Freedom for trade purposes.
The US Government’s initiative to create an International Religious Freedom Alliance as an international body to combat religious persecution is laudable so long as it does not consist of states that themselves commit religious discrimination and persecution. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary is the darling of Christian and especially Catholic conservatives for his opposition to abortion and his establishment of a fund to defend persecuted Christians; however, his own government deregistered all but 12 religions under an oppressive religion law and has actively persecuted Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers. One would not want to see the International Religious Freedom Alliance come under the same criticisms that the current Administration has leveled against the United Nations Human Rights Council. One human rights activist went so far as to say that the United States should not be allowed into the group in light of the current administration’s Muslim ban, support for anti-Semitic white nationalism, discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA community in the name of “religious freedom”, and the recent decision by this administration to accept only 18,000 refugees during the next 12 months, including refugees escaping religious persecution around the world.
Critics have also raised questions about the intent of these actions, many accusing the current administration of cynically using international religious freedom to feed its domestic base of Evangelical Christian supporters. While evidence exists that this may be true, even a broken clock is right twice a day: regardless of the intent or effectiveness of these initiatives, if nothing else, they raise awareness of an issue that often goes unnoticed and unreported.
With billions of people around the globe persecuted for their faith – more people died for their faith in the 21st century than all previous centuries combined – every little bit helps.
Fr. Joseph K. Grieboski, a Senior Fellow of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, is Secretary for Ecumenical, Interfaith, and Global Engagement of the Independent Old Catholic Church.