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A brief history of the church and religious freedom

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IRF Summit 2023 co-chair Sam Brownback speaks during the international religious freedom conference in January 2023.

IRF Summit 2023 co-chair Sam Brownback speaks during the international religious freedom conference at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Matailong Du, For the Deseret News

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The longtime, steady efforts of Latter-day Saint leadership to advance and defend religious freedom stood out several times Tuesday as I covered IRF Summit 2023, an international religious freedom conference in Washington, D.C.

The summit included international and national leaders who talked about the state of religious freedom worldwide and also suggested solutions.

It was possible to draw direct lines from proposed solutions to actions already long taken by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For example, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom expressed a need for faith leaders to help as he described what he meant by taking defense of the right to the next level.

“It means in major religious organizations, this becomes a top-tier, constant issue that the organization itself pushes,” said Sam Brownback, who also is a former U.S. senator and governor of Kansas.

There’s no question religious liberty has been a top-tier, constant issue advanced by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve throughout the 10 years I’ve covered the church and long before.

They’ve spoken in Europe and Asia, North and South America, Africa and the Middle East at international, national and academic conferences on religious freedom.

Sometimes, I’ve covered events where church leaders have acted directly to help other believers, such as President Russell M. Nelson providing church funds to help two mosques in New Zealand regroup after a mass murderer attacked them during worship services, and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland traveling to England to launch what has become a profound interfaith relationship.

A statement by an important international Muslim leader at the summit underscored how Latter-day Saint leaders have approached their positions on the issue for decades.

“The followers of each religion must also turn to their sacred texts to highlight teachings that encourage coexistence and tolerance and to see their religious texts, history and heritage in new and open interpretive contexts that allow them to discover the foundations for coexistence therein,” said Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, president of Abu Dhabi Peace Forum.

“In this regard, they must draw attention to the inspirational stories and models from their history, whose recital may contribute to spreading the values of goodness and peace in the hearts of their adherents,” he added.

That reminded me of numerous presentations I’ve covered by church leaders who described scriptural underpinnings and church history contexts for the faith’s support and defense of religious liberty, including President Dallin H. Oaks and most of the apostles, including Elders Holland, David A. Bednar, Quentin L. Cook, D. Todd Christofferson, Ronald A. Rasband, Dale G. Renlund, Ulisses Soares and more.

“Once a very persecuted minority, today we reach out to others around the world in partnership and relationship,” Elder Rasband said at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna, Italy, in 2021. “Like the lowly mustard seed described by Jesus Christ in the New Testament, today we are a tree with branches that extend refuge and succor to many. Many other minority faiths have similar stories to ours.”

After hearing Brownback and bin Bayyah’s comments on Tuesday, I asked Brownback on Wednesday about his perspective on Latter-day Saint efforts to support religious freedom. He talked about church history, too, and the church’s international growth.

“They’ve had a personal experience with this,” Brownback said about Latter-day Saint history. “It’s relatively recent memory. A lot of people know people that were persecuted for being LDS and persecuted in some cases severely. So this is recent memory, and they know what they face when they go into other countries, as well, so it’s not even memory, it’s current experience in places. They also are seeing the the need for alliances in this. So I’ve found the LDS leadership to be just very supportive of religious freedom.”

Brownback also noted the longstanding expertise of Brigham Young University’s law school on religious freedom.

“BYU does a fabulous job, and their legal center on this is best in the world on laws protecting religious freedom,” he said. “We used to refer people in other countries to them while I was ambassador (for religious freedom) because they were just the best in the world. Notre Dame is standing up a center, too, which I’m glad to see, to get more people out there to work on these topics. A lot of nations, they need legal counsel on how to structure their laws to maintain religious freedom, and that’s a very precise field and needs expertise.”

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Here’s who is saying it’s time to take the religious freedom movement to a Super Bowl level (Jan. 31)

Church commissioner: 5 ‘prophetic themes’ Latter-day Saint educators should instill in students (Jan. 27)

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