WASHINGTON, D.C. — Both Trump and Biden administration officials and both Republican and Democratic members of Congress displayed a unity of purpose here Wednesday at the second annual IRF Summit on international religious freedom.
They agreed on the need to counter hatred, discrimination, genocide and other violence against religious people across the globe.
“The United States will continue to stand up for religious freedom worldwide,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a member of President Biden’s cabinet.
“Religious liberty is fundamental to a free society,” said Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, the last Secretary of State in the Trump administration.
That kind of bipartisanship is exactly the goal of the IRF Summit, said co-chairs Sam Brownback, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, and Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
They modeled it as Brownback, a Republican, and Swett, a Democrat, kicked off the summit together onstage in a conference hall at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown D.C.
The IRF Summit unexpectedly fell five days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and two days after the court ruled a high school football coach had the right to pray at midfield after games. Some on Twitter and other social platforms said the rulings were divisive. Summit speakers sought common ground.
Brownback is a former Trump appointee and former governor and U.S. senator from Kansas. Swett is a former Obama appointee and Senate staffer for Biden.
“Our simple motto is religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, all the time,” said Brownback, a Catholic who also called religious freedom “the most abused human right in the world today.”
“This is an entirely non-partisan issue,” said Swett, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Everybody — Democrat and Republican, right and left and center — has come together to defend this foundational right.”
Blinken and several other government and religious leaders said it’s a right that should matter to those who are not religious, too.
“Freedom of religion is a human right. It’s a vital part of our identity,” said Blinken, who like Pompeo appeared at the conference by video. “Follow whichever belief system you embrace, or choose not to follow any belief system at all.”
Republicans and Democrats are modeling bipartisanship on the issue in Congress, too.
“The United States has a critical role to play in shining light on religious freedom violations worldwide, and we’re working to make that happen,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
For example, the Senate and House passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act six months ago to protect Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China. The law makes it U.S. policy that all goods made in Xinjiang are made with forced labor and directs the president of the United States to impose sanctions on people who knowing use forced Muslim labor.
The vote was unanimous in the Senate and 428-1 in the House.
A similar overwhelming bipartisan vote during the Trump administration led to passage of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.
Rubio on Wednesday announced ongoing bipartisan cooperation on religious freedom.
“I’m pleased to announce that we have a bipartisan agreement to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom so that it can continue its important work of highlighting religious freedom violations across the globe,” he said in a short video presentation at the summit.
“The commission is absolutely necessary,” he said. “In the past year alone, it has helped us identify how conflict and chaos led to (religious freedom) violations in Afghanistan, Ukraine and beyond.”
The specter of murder, execution, forced organ harvesting, rape, imprisonment and other outcomes of religious intolerance hung over the conference.
Booths in the conference center hallways at the Renaissance Hotel called attention to persecution of religious people around the world. One hallway included banners highlighting specific people killed or imprisoned for their beliefs.
“Every two hours, a Nigerian Christian is killed,” a video from Samaritans Purse warned during the conference’s second main session.
Speakers pleaded for help and understanding of the plight of their people, such as Salima Mazari, a former district governor in Afghanistan who spoke about the Taliban’s persecution of her Hazara people.
Pompeo introduced a panel discussion on the national security implications of religious persecution. Religious freedom is inseparable from other basic human rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, several speakers said.
“Religious freedom is a harbinger of things to come. It’s the canary in the mine of what’s coming in the future” in a given country, said one panelist, Lord David Alton.
“If you don’t understand the state of religious freedom in a country, then you don’t understand very much about it,” he added. “If you do understand it, you get a pretty good view of the condition of that country.”
He called religious freedom an “orphan right” around the world and said religious illiteracy leads to massive destabilization around the world, Lord Alton said. That includes its role as a motivating factor for many of the world’s more than 70 million refugees, he said.
The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights states that each person has the right to believe, the right not to believe and the right to change beliefs. Infringing on those rights has consequences for any country, he said.
“It behooves governments, if they’re truly interested in the common good, to understand religious communities. If they don’t understand them, they’re going to struggle,” said the Religious Freedom Institute’s Andrew Bennett, who was Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom.
However, the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report, released earlier this month, showed that many countries continue to suppress religious liberty.
“Far too many governments remain undeterred in their repression of their citizens,” said Rashad Hussain, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
‘First, governments continue to use discriminatory laws and policies to abuse their own people. Second, increasing social intolerance and hatred fueled violence and conflict around the world. And third, effective collaboration among governments, multilateral partners and civil society ... has led to positive change and provides hope in addressing these complex challenges.”
Brownback said religious freedom offers solutions to national ills. Religions also can help each other.
“Religion is the one entity that can stand up to government that government can’t subdue,” he said.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared by video to introduce a panel about the impact of religious freedom violations against women worldwide. She said attacks on religious freedom harshly and disproportionately impact women.
“This injustice has taken on many sickening forms around the world,” Pelosi said, adding that “all freedom-loving people have an obligation” to stand up for religious freedom.
The repeated calls for unity of purpose across religions, governments and other sectors of civil society were calls for cultures to change, both within religions and in the broader society, speakers said.
“Some people are terrible people to one another on the basis of their faith. We need to be open about that,” said Allison Ralph of the Aspen Institute’s Religion and Society program. “The inability to talk about it does not serve us well. Religion is a minefield of individual and collective hurts. If we can’t talk about that, we can’t solve any of these problems. This is about changing our culture so we can move forward together.”
Brownback said the IRF Summit is a way to instigate change.
“This is a friendship summit,” he said. “Pick a project. Pick several projects, and start working together.”
Other leaders sounded a similar note.
“I’m grateful to all those in attendance today for their leadership and their dedication to the cause of religious freedom,” Rubio said. “I look forward to continue to work together to ensure that all people are afforded the right to safely and peacefully worship.”
The summit continues Thursday with a full day of panel discussions.
The summit concludes with a gala that will include the presentation of the IRF’s Impact Awards and a conversation between Swett and former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom. Kanter Freedom is a practicing Muslim and activist for religious rights.