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Religion summit shines bright light on the real human toll of religious violence, persecution

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A display features Zaynab Jalalian, a Kurdish woman initially sentenced to death by an Iranian court for fighting against God, at the IRF Summit in Washington, D.C.

Displays like this one at the IRF Summit in Washington, D.C., shared the plight of people persecuted for their religious beliefs around the world, often for apostasy. The display pictured features Zaynab Jalalian, a Kurdish woman initially sentenced to death by an Iranian court for fighting against God. A higher court reduced her sentence to life imprisonment.

Tad Walch, Deseret News

This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Wednesday night.

Up and down the hallways on two floors of the downtown Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 29, banners and posters at booths blared dire warnings about the genocide, murder, imprisonment and even forced organ harvesting of religious believers around the world.

The booths underscored the messages of many of the speakers at the second annual IRF Summit on global religious freedom.

Organizations and individual refugees pleaded with journalists and government and religious leaders for recognition of the plight of Christians in the Middle East, Hazaras in Afghanistan, Uyghurs in China and more. Among them were:

  • In Defense of Christians.
  • International Christian Concern.
  • Persecution.org.
  • March for the Martyrs.
  • The International Organization to Preserve Human Rights.
  • The Global Campaign for Religious Prisoners of Conscience.

“We can’t do this work without our partners across civil society that lift up the voices of those suffering persecution,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a video presentation. “They open our eyes to atrocities and abuses on the ground. And they offer support. I’d like to thank our partners across more than 35 governments and multilateral organizations who help monitor religious freedom and respond collectively.”

Rashad Hussain, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, delivered a keynote speech that included concrete examples of religious persecution around the world, which includes the persecution of Muslims who decide to leave Islam. Some 40% of the world’s countries have laws banning blasphemy and 11% have banned apostasy.

Hussain’s role is an official part of the U.S. State Department and American foreign policy.

“Soon, my office will launch a social media campaign to highlight global blasphemy and apostasy cases,” Hussain said. “The campaign will put pressure on violators of religious freedom by spotlighting victims of discriminatory laws and practices.”

Blinken said freedom to believe or not believe is a fundamental right.

“Like all of you at this gathering, the United States has a deep and abiding commitment to protecting and promoting religious freedom for all people, everywhere,” he said. “Freedom of religion is a human right. It’s a vital part of our identity. Follow whichever believe system you embrace or choose not to follow any belief system at all.”

Hussain said civil society organizations are critical to helping counter all forms of hatred, violence and discrimination.

“Your expertise, your advocacy, your commitment and your passion move people and move governments, including ours,” he said. “Change is only possible with the hard work of the groups and individuals dedicated to fighting for all of these rights.

“And today, more than ever, we have tools at our disposal to facilitate the flow of information to keep everyone informed. We have mechanisms to shed light on abuses taking place. And we have a means to hold bad actors accountable. We have more partners in this effort now than ever before, including religious leaders. Religion can be such a powerful force for good, and it should never be used to harm people. Our greatest hope is that together we can unite our efforts to ensure respect for freedom of religion or belief for all people around the globe. And we continue to stand in solidarity with all people seeking to exercise their beliefs.”

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Behind the scenes

A banner for a booth at the second annual IRF Summit on global religious freedom in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2022.

A banner for a booth at the second annual IRF Summit on global religious freedom at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2022.

Tad Walch, Deseret News