WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Kansas City Chiefs are headed to the Super Bowl, a level higher than they reached last year.

Sam Brownback wore Chiefs socks on Tuesday so he could use the team’s achievement to tell members of a growing movement on international religious freedom that it is time to level up.

Brownback represented Kansas in both houses of Congress during the 1990s, when he said it was hard to get three or four people in D.C. together in a room to talk about religious freedom. On Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 1,000 from all over the world gathered for IRF Summit 2023 in Washington, D.C.

“I honestly believe that this meeting this year is going to be our breakout game, that this is the game where people look at this movement, they see the breadth of it, they see the interest in the subject, they see the importance of it in a broad array of fields, and we’re going to be playing at a higher level,” he said. “...Let’s take the International Religious Freedom topic to the Super Bowl (level).”

Brownback shared what the next level should look like on a day that included bipartisan concern for violent persecution of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other faith groups around the world in speeches by people ranging from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to actor Penn Badgley.

Stark reports of genocides past, present and possibly ahead mixed with hopeful optimism about the difference one person and small to large organizations can have.

“You represent a phenomenon that is new in human history. There is more interfaith cooperation as a normative part of societal life going on across the globe at this moment than at any point in human history,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

A coalition of 42 countries, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, is engaged in a multinational effort to protect and advance freedom of religion or belief around the world, said Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State.

He reiterated that “freedom of religion is a bedrock American value” and a critical component of national security and U.S. foreign policy.

IRF Summit 2023 co-chair Katrina Lantos-Swett welcomes summit attendees in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.
Katrina Lantos-Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and IRF Summit co-chair, welcomes attendees to IRF Summit 2023 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. | Matailong Du/For the Deseret News

“Time after time, we’ve seen how religious persecution can undercut stability and inclusive economic development, spiraling into violence and conflict,” Blinken said. “Meanwhile, countries that respect human rights and foster inclusion find themselves better positioned to grow, deliver for their people and contribute to addressing our most pressing global challenges. For this reason, protecting and promoting religious freedom is vital to safeguarding America’s national security and continues to be an essential part of our diplomacy around the world.”

Blinken said the State Department will release its 25th annual International Religious Freedom Report this spring. The report reviews the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories across the globe and, Blinken said, illustrates how the U.S. government has advocated for the right globally.

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“People of faith, like all people, deserve to live free from fear and oppression,” he said. “And with your continued partnership, the State Department and the entire United States government will continue standing strongly for the rights of every person to worship and believe as they choose.”

To those who expressed discouragement during breakout sessions over the imprisonment of and violence committed against religious believers around the world, BYU law professor Brett Scharffs also expressed hope.

“I think we should try not to be too discouraged and try to think about concrete specific positive things that we can do, not that any one of them will solve the problem for once and for all, but it will help move forward this project of creating a century that is more humane, more just, more peaceful than the century we just finished,” said Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies.

Brett Scharffs, director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, participates IRF Summit 2023.
Brett Scharffs, director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, participates in a major panel discussion at the IRF Summit 2023 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. | Daniel Morassi De Lima/For the Deseret News

He and others made a case for why religious freedom is good for all people.

“Religious freedom is really the taproot of all human rights,” Scharffs said. “If you think of the important rights in our First Amendment, freedom of speech emerged out of a struggle for religious dissenters to speak. Freedom of the Press emerged from a struggle to print the Bible in a vernacular that people could read. Freedom of association emerged from a struggle of religious dissenters to be able to gather and worship together. Even the right to petition the government, if you go and look at the historical record, many of those petitions came from people who were being persecuted on the basis of religion.

“Without religious freedom, I fear that what we’ll end up with is a cut-flower human rights culture, where these other beautiful freedoms are severed from the taproot that genuinely gives them sustenance.”

A main session and a breakout session focused on the 2018 Punta del Este Declaration on human dignity, with presenters saying that a focus on human dignity for all people everywhere can create consensus across broad swaths of people.

“There is very deep and substantial nexus between religious freedom ... and human dignity,” said Jan Figel, who served as the first Special Envoy for Promotion of Freedom of Religion or Belief outside the European Union from 2016 to 2019.

Human dignity, Figel added, “is a precondition for more peaceful, more humane 21st Century, and we need such an ambition.”

“Human dignity is something that we can ]rally around, even without agreeing completely about what it means,” Scharffs said. “This isn’t so unusual. If you think of the great concepts in our constitutional systems — freedom, equality, nondiscrimination, equal protection of law, due process of law — none of them are defined in the document itself. They invite a process of unfolding and development and realization over time.”

Dozens of presenters urged people everywhere to act to help those suffering from religious persecution. Signs and billboards throughout the convention center portion of the Washington Hilton shared stories of persecuted women and men.

“I used to quote Elie Wiesel, who said that indifference is sister to evil,” Figel said.

Now Figel talks about “three siblings of evil — indifference, ignorance and fear, because if we don’t care, if we don’t know, if we don’t have the courage say to do something, then we are commentators or even lamentators,” he said.

Brownback, who also served as the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, shared what he believes the next level for the IRF Summit looks like, including continued serious, substantive discussion, policy proposals and networking.

“It means we’re on the agenda of the G-20,” he said. “It means we’re in the boardroom of these big corporations like we heard about at the last discussion. It means equal citizenship in Muslim majority countries, regardless of your religious view or point of view. It means in major religious organizations, this becomes a top-tier, constant issue that the organization itself pushes.

“That’s what we’ve got to do to get this agenda to where it needs to be, to stop the killings, to stop the arrests, to stop the harassment so that people can freely stand and participate in the global economy and the public or private space that they choose.”

Several speakers talked about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“Part of that was driven by Ukraine splitting off to form its own Orthodox Church,” Brownback said. “It really drove Putin mad about this topic and mad about Ukraine splitting out from the Russian world, but they have every right to do that. They should be able to do that.”

A major Muslim leader also addressed the summit and described his vision for pushing for global religious freedom.

Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, president of Abu Dhabi Peace Forum, has joined multifaith, international efforts, including a new group called the Alliance of Virtue, to advance religious pluralism.

“This requires continuous effort and broad-ranging cooperation between religious leaders of different faiths through increasing mutual acquaintance between their followers and enhancing cooperation and joint initiatives between them,” bin Bayyah said in speech read by a translator in English.

Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, right, president of Abu Dhabi Peace Forum, listens to a translator during IRF Summit 2023.
Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, right, president of Abu Dhabi Peace Forum, listens to a translator during a plenary session of IRF Summit 2023 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. | Daniel Morassi De Lima/For the Deseret News

Bin Bayyah played a role in the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, a statement by “more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, heads of state and scholars championing the defense of the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.

Bin Bayyah on Tuesday called for raising awareness with policymakers of the importance and value of religious freedom.

“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,” he added. “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.”

Bayyah’s comments drew praise from Pastor Bob Roberts, co-Founder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.

“I’m a Baptist pastor from Texas, and I love Shaykh bin Bayyah,” Roberts said. “I love Jesus; he does, too. We have some differences in our theology. He’s not letting me baptize him, and I’m not doing the Shahada. But I love this man, and I want you to never forget you heard a speech with one of the top Muslim leaders in the world promoting religious freedom. So when you hear people say that Muslims do not promote religious freedom, they don’t know the right Muslims.”

The IRF Summit continues Wednesday. Cole Durham, founding director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, will be part of a session titled, “What is religious freedom, and what is it not?”

Among the other panels will be one on the importance of international religious freedom education and awareness that will include Aaron Sherinian, CEO of Radiant Foundation and senior vice president of global reach for Deseret Management Corporation.

IRF 2023’s title sponsors are the Universal Peace Federation and Washington Times. Other sponsors include BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, the Deseret News and the Radiant Foundation.