(ANALYSIS) The International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA) earlier this month released a significant statement on the current worldwide persecution of Christians. It’s essence: Religious freedom is still comparatively neglected as a human right, and the ongoing persecution of Christians relatively unknown
In the summer of 2018, the then Secretary of State Michael Pompeo organized a “Ministerial” in Washington DC on religious freedom. “Ministerial’ is an unusual word. It refers to a high-level conference of senior government officials that is not primarily a diplomatic negotiation intended to produce a common policy, nor simply a conference. It is an unusual blend of the two, which allows diplomatic flexibility and possibility.
This first gathering was a small affair, arranged on short notice. The second, in July 2019, drew 1,000 invitees, and invitations had to be closed off months in advance. It was the largest human rights conference ever convened by the State Department. The crowds had to be accommodated in massive tents in the inner courtyards at Foggy Bottom. It drew people from over 100 countries, with dozens of cabinet and ambassadorial-level representatives.
One concern with major events like this is that they might produce short-term highs but without much long-term effect. Yet, despite COVID derailing the possibility of any large gathering for some years, these ministerials continued — with the next one scheduled for Prague in November. There are also ongoing regional gatherings, including in Muslim countries.
This means that there are now governmental and intergovernmental apparatuses focused on religious freedom whose work is leavened by numerous NGOs working across regional, national and religious boundaries.
Perhaps most importantly, the ministerials have created an international governmental alliance—the Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. It is “a network of like-minded countries fully committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief around the world.”
To date, 37 countries have joined the Alliance: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Australia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Denmark, Estonia, The Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Slovenia, Togo, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There are also five IRFBA “friends”: Canada, Guyana, Japan, South Korea, and Sweden, and three IRFBA observers: the Sovereign Order of Malta, Taiwan, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Its current Chair is Fiona Bruce MP, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy (UK), and the Vice-Chair is Robert Rehak (CZE), the Ambassador and Special Envoy for Holocaust, Interfaith Dialogue and Freedom of Religion, Czech Republic. Rashad Hussain, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom (USA), is a member of the steering committee as is Joao Lucas Quental Novaes de Almeida, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (BRA).
The Pew Forum has consistently shown that Christians suffer the widest pattern of religious harassment in the world. In the face of much ignorance, the Alliance’s statement is doubly welcome.
The May 17, 2023, statement on the persecution of Christians states inter alia: “[W]e uphold the right of all people to freedom of religion or belief and the ability of people to practise their religion and live their lives free from fear and discrimination. We recognise the contribution of Christians to the culture, values, security, and prosperity of states. They should never have to fear for their personal safety or the safety of their religious institutions.”
“We note with grave concern that reports of intolerance and harassment against Christians around the world is increasing and more widespread,” the statement reads. “Members of Christian communities, or those wishing to join, face limitations on their right to freedom of religion or belief in every world region. In conflict and insecure environments they have suffered from repeated terrorist and violent attacks by mobs and extremists.”
The proclamation also pays particular attention to the experiences of women and girls, who may face persecution, discrimination, and harassment due to their sex as well as their religion. It also highlights “blasphemy, apostasy and other laws to punish individuals wishing to join Christian and other religious or belief communities through conversion or membership. Such laws severely impinge upon the right of everyone, everywhere to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief.”
The declaration concludes with eight recommendations, including reaffirming that “Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides for right of individuals to freedom of thought and conscience, and as part of that right, to freely have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice without coercion.”
It also emphasizes combating gender-based violence and calls “upon governments to repeal blasphemy laws, as such laws are often used as a pretext to justify vigilantism or mob violence in the name of religion or as a pretext to pursue retribution related to personal grievances and to release any individuals jailed for these so-called crimes….”
This statement was signed by about half the Alliance membership: Armenia, Australia, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Malta, Order of Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Taiwan, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There seems to be no pattern as to who signed and who did not.
No doubt the declaration will be criticized for its focus on Christians. It is true that governments should not privilege the protection of any group because of its religion, and almost every religious group in the world suffers persecution. But every worthwhile human rights statement must necessarily focus on particular people or places in particular or else it becomes a banal restatement of universal platitudes. Further, the Alliance has already produced statements and actions on behalf of a wide range of religious groups and individuals—it has not been partial.
The United Nations has declared March 15 as an “International Day to Combat Islamophobia” and there are also programs to combat the ongoing plague of anti-Semitism. But many in the world, including in the media, still suppose that Christianity as white and western, even though three-quarters of active Christians live outside the west. We need to be continually reminded of the persecution of Christians—especially the thousands being killed in Nigeria, and those being massacred by ISIS and other groups throughout Africa.
Paul Marshall is Wilson Distinguished Professor of Religious Freedom at the Institute for Studies of Religion, director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, and author of over twenty books on religion and politics.