U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will host representatives of foreign governments to discuss ways to advance the cause of religious freedom worldwide, an initiative that at first blush may not seem to fit into the traditional portfolio of Department of State duties. But given the fact that so many of the foreign relations challenges we now face stem from conflicts among religious sects, the proposed summit conference is a sound pursuit of diplomatic strategy.
The secretary will preside over a gathering of leaders from “like-minded” nations in a conference scheduled for late July. As many countries struggle with the preservation of religious liberty, and in preventing religious conflicts from fomenting civil strife, the meetings may offer a unique and refreshing platform to air thoughts on ways to quell those conflicts.
Throughout history, political and cultural pressures have arisen that directly or indirectly threaten the free pursuit of religious belief and expression. Healthy societies cannot allow such pressures to erode basic freedoms, and nations should not be in a place to tailor their relationships with other countries based on a litmus test of religious tolerance, or intolerance.
From the perspective of the United States, it’s important that relations with a foreign power are based on an accounting of that nation’s attitude toward religious liberty, as well as its posture in military alignments or in trade agreements.
The State Department has been required by Congress for the past 20 years to issue a yearly report on religious freedom around the world. Annually, the report details examples of oppression ranging from genocidal atrocities to routine practices under civil law that restrict the rights of citizens based on their spiritual beliefs.
This year’s report focuses attention on the plight of Rohingya and Kachin people in Myanmar under persecution and forced into refugee camps in Bangladesh. It also details the persecution of members of Christian sects in various nations and rehearses offenses against religious liberty in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, North Korea, China and elsewhere.
The convening of an international conference to explore ways to counter systematic oppression is a step beyond simply documenting the practice. Pompeo described the meeting as a way to “break new ground” and insisted that it is meant to be more than “a discussion group.” Those countries in which religious freedoms are under attack are not likely to participate in the July conference. But the gathering of representatives of other nations opposed to such institutionalized oppression could put pressure on those countries to open their doors to more acceptance of those with differing beliefs, if not immediately, then over time.
World history is rife with examples of wars triggered by religious differences. It’s fitting for the United States to take the lead in formally discouraging practices that threaten not only individual freedom, but also the general stability of all international relations.