Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence condemned antisemitism Tuesday at the fourth annual IRF Summit in Washington, D.C., and said it is vital that all people come to understand the link between religious liberty and peace, stability and other freedoms.
“The time has come for people around the world to speak with one voice and say there is no tolerance for antisemitism in any form in any nation on earth,” said Pence, who earlier this month visited Israel to see the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas.
He called it “the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust” and reiterated his commitment to stand with Israel.
“I think it’s a watchword to all of us as we see protests on campuses and in streets, not only here in the United States but across the West, to make it clear that we will stand against religious bigotry, we will stand against antisemitism, we will stand for the freedom of religion of every person on earth, so help us God.”
Pence was a featured speaker Tuesday among dozens who spoke to thousands in a ballroom and conference rooms at the Washington Hilton. Some bore personal witness to violence and government repression against religious communities and people. For example, a Nicaraguan priest spoke from behind a screen, with his voice altered, to describe his escape from oppression.
Among the panelists were representatives of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University and the Radiant Foundation.
Others shared data or launched collaborations or provided training or other support for religious freedom reforms. Several people spoke about the 25-year-old requirement that the U.S. State Department make religious freedom a key part of U.S. foreign policy, as codified in 1998’s International Religious Freedom Act.
Pence encourages believers to ‘never give up hope’
Pence said the U.S. government should press Nicaragua to reform or lose its free trade agreement with the United States.
“I believe the time has come for the United States to make it clear to Nicaragua that we will not tolerate action against oppression of church leaders and religious leaders in Nicaragua without consequence,” Pence said.
The former vice president also said oppressed believers should rely on the Lord.
“I would tell you, never give up hope, because when we make the cause of the freedom of religion and freedom of conscience our cause, I think we make his work on this earth our own.”
Pence also issued a rallying cry to IRF Summit attendees who represent churches, human rights groups and other nonprofits or civil society groups that try to protect religious liberty.
“I believe as you fight for religious freedom,” he said, “you’re laying a foundation for a more free and prosperous future for all mankind, and so God bless you all.”
The vice president was one of many who talked about global studies that show a connection between religious freedom and political freedom.
IRF Summit founder Sam Brownback called the summit part of the “most important human rights movement on the planet” and said religious freedom provides all people with the ability to make choices about the soul that “certainly no government or angry mob has the right to take it from you.”
“Religious freedom is the cornerstone human right that sets the foundation on which the other human rights can flourish,” he said. “And boy, do we need some flourishing. The great global human rights project has suffered decline in the last 20 years at the hand of expanding authoritarian regimes and sophisticated technology.
“We must fight back in a more effective way than we have to date.”
During the Trump administration, Brownback was the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a position created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
He said the IRF Summit human rights movement is growing and going global while calling religious freedom good for everyone. Protecting religious minorities, he said, can stop genocide in its tracks.
“Now, I have a warning to governments unwilling to protect this fundamental right of your people: Prepare to be challenged,” Brownback said. “Your people want freedom of thought, conscience and religion. They will obtain it one way or the other. The creaky, great days of religious freedom, so long shut in many places, are slowly opening. The refreshing breeze of freedom is starting to move. The people are stirring. This tide will not be contained. Those who tried to restrain the soul from its rendezvous with the Almighty will be washed away. Take heed.”
Faith and media
Among 17 panels held Tuesday in four tracks — voices, vulnerable, violations and victories — was one on elevating forgotten religious voices through media.
Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks said 2,700 journalists lost their jobs in 2023 and therefore expecting media companies to hire more journalists trained to cover religion isn’t likely to happen or become a solution to bettering media coverage of religion.
Wilks said a goal of the Deseret News and its parent company, Deseret Management Corp., is to spread truth and light around the world. He said journalists can better get to truth if they understand the differences between religion, church and faith. Journalists are trained to cover churches as institutions, and often don’t understand or overlook religion and faith.
“Church as an institution is one aspect,” he said. “Religions are belief systems that have existed ever since man began walking the earth — it’s how do you handle basic human rights? Faith is something different, because faith motivates. Faith causes people to do certain things and live a certain way.”
Wilks said religious people who interact with journalists writing about them should ask them which aspect the journalists plan to cover.
“Are you here to cover religion as a human condition? Are you here to talk about my church as an institution? Or are you here to talk about the motivating factor of faith that causes people to change professions, to volunteer, to feed the poor, to do everything in their power without regard for themselves, because they’re motivated?” he said.
Wilks said people of faith shouldn’t lament that more journalists can’t be hired to cover church, religion and faith. Instead, they should ask journalists to have a greater understanding of the role faith plays in all walks of life and ask their questions to get at what really drives them.
One panelist on Tuesday shared several cringeworthy examples of journalists who don’t understand religion.
When Pope John Paul II was buried with his papal staff, sometimes referred to as a crosier, The New York Times reported that he was buried with a crow’s ear, said Josh Good, director of the Faith Angle Forum.
When another reporter asked a question about men’s and women’s roles in the Southern Baptists and was told that it all comes back to the book of Ephesians, he asked who published the book and where he could get a copy.
“Lots of secular news reporters and sometimes columnist and sometimes editors don’t get religion,” Good said, “and if they don’t get religion, and you have a quarter of the population who is evangelical and a fifth of the population is Catholic, and 14% of Americans are mainline Protestant and 11% of the population are African American Christian, and 2% of the population is Jewish and 1.5% of the population who’s Muslim, and if journalists don’t get that, then their stories aren’t as nuanced or as thoughtful or as helpful or as connected.”
Good said religious literacy isn’t the solution for everything, but the Faith Angle Forum provides opportunities for journalists to mix with religion scholars and clerics “so that religion can be tasted in its truest, best form in ways to connect with contemporary events.”
Optimism in the face of violence, oppression
Exhibits in the Hilton ballroom called attention to harrowing persecution faced by religious people around the world, from Uyghurs to Ukrainians.
The official U.S. report on the state of international religious freedom last year found more than 40 countries where religious freedom was in decline and just nine where it was improving, said Susan Crabtree, a political correspondent for RealClear Politics.
She said a poll her publication did with Emerson College found that 94% of Americans support religious freedom as a fundamental right. She asked a panel if it is a bedrock principle of U.S. foreign policy.
“It’s absolutely an essential part of our foreign policy,” said Rashad Hussain, the current U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Hussain said that when the Biden administration or State Department officials discuss foreign policy, representatives from his office are in the room to ensure that everyone understands how protecting the human right of religious freedom positively impacts American security interests.
“It’s very clear, and the data bears this out, that countries and societies that protect their religious freedom are more likely to be safe and prosperous, and countries that do not protect religious freedom are less likely to be stable,” Hussain said. “So it is an essential part of our foreign policy, and we see evidence for that all around the world.”
The Deseret News will provide additional coverage from the IRF Summit, including the effort to establish a Human Dignity Day by the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies.