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'People want religious freedom and they want it now.' Here's how U.S. officials have taken the lead in ensuring they get it

WASHINGTON — One day before the start of the State Department’s second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, a key organizer, was at the Holocaust Museum considering its message of “Never Again” alongside survivors of religious persecution from around the world.

World War II-era concentration camps might be closed, he thought, but, looking at the faces of the survivors around him, he could see that faith-based violence persists.

Shooters target houses of worship. Bombs explode on Easter. Religious leaders must quiet fears while they nurture faith.

“How do I answer a parent whose child is too afraid to attend religious services?” asked Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who leads the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue that was attacked last October, during today's opening session of this year’s religious freedom conference. “How do I console a congregant who has been unable to set foot inside any synagogue since October 27?”

In 2019, the rallying cry against religious persecution is no longer “never again.” Instead, it’s “When will it stop?”

That harsh reality is on the minds of the around 1,000 government officials, religious leaders and human rights activists gathered at the State Department this week. This year’s ministerial represents the largest human rights event the department has ever hosted, according to Brownback, who serves as the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

“People want religious freedom and they want it now,” he said during the opening session. And U.S. officials have taken the lead in ensuring they get it.

This week’s meeting is part of the Trump administration’s broad — and, at times, controversial — effort to protect people of all faiths and none in America and around the world. Everyone will be better off when people can worship safely, freely and in whatever way they please, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at the U.S. State Department in Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, at the U.S. State Department in Washington.
Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

“I want you to know that America’s commitment to religious freedom will never waver,” he said.

Both Pompeo and Brownback appeared thrilled to be hosting an event on religious freedom for the second year in a row.

“For me, this is like Christmas Day and I’m getting ready to open presents,” Brownback said.

His call to action, and the multiple bursts of applause it inspired, was an emotional high point during a sobering morning.

Rabbi Myers and other survivors of or experts on faith-based violence in New Zealand and Sri Lanka shared stories of conditions around the world. They described what it’s like to stay faithful when it could cost you your life.

“Only when all aspects of this society reject this scourge … will we see the day when all people can enter their houses of worship in safety,” Rabbi Myers said.

However, people won’t reject religious violence until they understand it’s happening. There’s still widespread misunderstanding about what people of other faiths believe and what religious freedom is meant to guarantee, said Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief for the United Nations.

Amid this confusion, religious persecution thrives. Government and social restrictions on faith have increased over the last decade, even as more countries commit resources to promoting religious freedom, according to a new Pew Research Center report.

“Over the decade from 2007 to 2017, government restrictions on religion — laws, policies and actions by state officials that restrict religious beliefs and practices — increased markedly around the world. And social hostilities involving religion — including violence and harassment by private individuals, organizations or groups — also have risen,” Pew reported.

In 2017, high or very high levels of overall restrictions were present in 83 countries. More than 80% of the world’s population lives in these religiously restrictive environments, according to an analysis of Pew’s data from the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation.

One of the countries highlighted in Pew’s report and at the State Department’s meeting is China, where people of faith are increasingly singled out for unfavorable treatment. Around 1 million Uighur Muslims are currently held in internment camps and Christian crosses are being removed from churches.

“I think what’s happening in China is a challenge to the conscience of the world and we cannot let it go,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, during her presentation at the ministerial Tuesday afternoon.

But government leaders often have let it go because of economic interests and other concerns. Pelosi argued that officials need to have a consistent approach to religious freedom if they want to make a difference.

“Unless we are willing to speak out against human rights and violations of religious freedom in China, we lose all moral authority to talk about it any other place in the world,” she said.

Other speakers at this week’s State Department meeting also encouraged more consistent work on behalf of persecuted faith groups. Participants are focused on forming valuable partnerships and pushing more governments to take action.

“Let’s build bridges and recognize that by building bridges we can overcome the negative trends,” Shaheed said.

If participants succeed in this mission, then maybe the Holocaust museum’s hope of “never again” will finally be possible, said Jan Figel, the European Union’s special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief.

“Never again means never again,” he said. “Either we mean what we say and what we subscribe to or (the ministerial) is just another meeting … and time lost."

Our faith requires more from us than maintaining the status quo.

“How could we do anything less than respect the dignity and worth of every person?” said Pelosi, who is Catholic.