Next week, U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo will host the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.
Last year’s event was the largest ever global meeting on religious liberty, and Pompeo said it was evidence that the administration of President Donald Trump has made religious freedom “a true priority.”
The meeting comes just a week after Pompeo’s British counterpart – Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – presented the final report from an independent inquiry he commissioned into worldwide anti-Christian persecution.
This one-two punch in favor of freedom of religion must be heartening for religious rights organizations, many of which have been frustrated with what they see as the low priority given to religious-based persecution, compared to other issues such as race, ethnicity, or sexual identity.
Last year, the former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, said religious freedom risks “becoming a second-class right that is regularly, or too often, subordinated to a whole range of other rights, claims and interests.”
This change of course by the two leading Western powers couldn’t come at a more opportune time. The 21st century is seeing some of the largest-scale anti-religious persecution since the end of the Cold War, and the just-released UK report estimates about 80 percent of those affected are Christians.
In his remarks on July 8, Hunt alluded to the problem noted by Glendon, admitting that governments have preferred the vague language of general condemnation rather than face the specific problem of anti-Christian discrimination and persecution.
The British foreign secretary brought up the conflict between Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria attacking farmers in the country’s “Middle Belt.” The Fulani are Muslims, and the farmers are primarily Christian.
“But whether or not the bloodshed is driven principally by competition over land and water, it would be a mistake to overlook religious hatred as an important factor,” the foreign secretary stated. “Indeed, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the gunmen who raided a church in Benue state last year, murdering 2 priests and 17 worshippers, just one of the atrocities highlighted in the report, were motivated by anything else.”
Pompeo and Hunt even joined together to discuss religious liberty at a round table held at Lambeth Palace when the U.S. Secretary of State was in London in May.
Yet many observers might point to the irony of the diplomatic arms of the U.S. and Britain pushing religious liberty at the same time the phrase is viewed more and more suspiciously on the domestic front.
In the UK, Hunt’s colleagues at the Home Office – which combines the functions of the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, and handles immigration – came under fire for its handling of the cases of asylum seekers fleeing the very persecution highlighted in the report commissioned by the Foreign Office.
In the U.S., the Supreme Court recently overturned a decision that could have led to the destruction of war memorials across the country if they are in the shape of a cross. Such an action would have been eerily reminiscent of the recent destruction of crosses ordered by the Communist authorities in China.
Of course, the most pressing religious liberty concerns in the West surround life and gender issues: Abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, transsexualism, etc., and the surrounding matters of conscience rights, hate speech laws, and employment decisions.
Many pro-choice and LGBTQ activists openly object to religious liberty laws, claiming they will circumvent current civil rights legislation.
So although the current push to protect religious liberty abroad can be applauded, there are several additional moves that could be made to help alleviate the concerns of religious freedom advocates:
1) Both the State Department and the Foreign Office should ensure that their religious liberty efforts are bi-partisan efforts. The freedom of belief shouldn’t be seen as a Republican or Conservative Party issue.
In both countries, the underlying institutional framework supporting religious liberty isn’t tied to a particular party.
In the United States, the legislation governing international religious freedom was passed under the Clinton administration. The State Department is mandated to issue an annual report highlighting abusers of religious rights, and there is an ambassador dedicated to the issue, currently former Kansas governor and senator, Sam Brownback.
In the UK, Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief was appointed for the first time just last year, but cross-party parliamentary groups exist for most international religious liberty issues, so it shouldn’t be shelved due to a change of government.
However, the fact remains that Trump and Hunt are two of the most divisive figures on the political scene, and a special effort needs to be made to make sure religious liberty doesn’t become seen as a pet issue for either one.
2) When speaking about religious freedom, there could be a stronger emphasis on the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Passed just over 50 years ago, the 1948 declaration is one of the most concise – and most agreed upon – human rights documents in history. Article 18 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In an age of expanding and conflicting rights, the UDHR is even more important as a point of reference. It also helps counter claims that concerns about anti-Christian persecution are a form of “neocolonialism,” since it keeps things under the UN umbrella.
This is also an opportunity for the both the State Department and Foreign Office to use their diplomatic influence, since the document has yet to be signed by many Muslim countries.
It doesn’t hurt that the principles of the UDHR also have a bearing on the domestic debates about religious freedom currently taking place in the U.S., Britain, and other Western countries.
3) Ensure that diplomatic staff are religiously literate.
Future diplomats in most Western countries are often recruited from some of the most topnotch universities, which also happen to be some of the most secular places on earth. Religion, and how it can affect the dynamics in a country, is often downplayed by diplomats, who prefer to look at the economic and political roots of any situation.
Diplomats should know the basics of the religious landscape of any country they are in, and should engage with religious leaders, including those of religious minorities, on a regular basis.
Although religious liberty advocates will always point to what more can be done, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this July is seeing a major paradigm shift in how the U.S. and Britain are confronting violations of freedom of belief and anti-Christian persecution on the global stage. And that is to be applauded.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome
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