The Hill: Protecting Religious Freedom Provides Common Ground for All

Jul 30, 2018

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill on July 27, 2018.

By former USCIRF Commissioners Tenzin Dorjee and Kristina Arriaga

To the surprise of many, there is a foreign policy issue on which the White House and  Democrats and Republicans in Congress have agreed for over two decades: the global promotion and protection of religious freedom, defined as the fundamental human right to believe in and be guided by any faith, or none.

As articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and codified in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), freedom of religion or belief means the rights of citizens are not dependent on their religious identity, practices or beliefs. This “first freedom” is the basis for many other rights, like the freedoms of speech, expression and association. In many countries where religious freedom is denied, not only are those countries’ inhabitants at risk, their national security and stability is undermined. Relatedly, freedom of religion or belief is crucial to America’s national security.

Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that where freedom of religion or belief is restricted, poverty and violence begin. It is in the countries that deprive their citizens of freedom of conscience that human trafficking and forced labor flourish. And it is in these countries that the roots of terrorism are sown.

The Trump administration seems to be especially cognizant of these threats to human dignity and regional and global security and stability. This week, the Department of State hosted the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, which drew hundreds of those involved in the global fight to defend religious freedom. Representatives of governments, international organizations, religious communities, civil society and others shared information, built awareness, debated policies and collaborated on solutions for people worldwide who are oppressed and persecuted because of their beliefs.

Religious freedom violations — ranging from discrimination to forced conversions to mass atrocities — are increasing in countries with authoritarian regimes that are aligned with their countries’ majority religions, or fearful of the influence of moral principles or alternative expressions they can’t control.

Among the 16 countries that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) considers “Countries of Particular Concern (CPC),” Pakistan is an example of the former; the government both actively persecutes religious minorities and turns a blind eye to discrimination and violence perpetrated against them by others. Examples of the latter include Vietnam, where communism is the only respected ideology or “belief.”

USCIRF has recommended to the State Department that these two countries (plus the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Russia and Syria) be designated as CPCs, which, under IRFA, would require the administration to take actions such as imposing Global Magnitsky sanctions, economic sanctions or travel limitations, to encourage improvements in freedom of religion or belief.

Tools the United States and other like-minded countries can use to promote and defend religious freedom were chief among the topics raised at the ministerial.

Another issue discussed is the link between violations of religious freedom and women's rights. Along with increased rates of sex trafficking, child and forced marriages, and gender-based violence in countries that deprive their citizens of freedom of conscience, there is little room for human rights defenders to mobilize to advocate for women’s rights.

In addition to addressing the countries that violate religious freedom, ministerial attendees sought solutions to the egregious religious freedom violations being committed by “Entities of Particular Concern (EPCs)." USCIRF has identified as EPCs and called for action against three of the most violent such groups: ISIS, which has committed genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq; the Taliban, whose extremist interpretations of Sharia law have led to honor killings and denials of women’s right to education and other basic rights in Afghanistan; and the al Qaeda-aligned al-Shabaab that that has killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, in Somalia.

Countries and organizations that suppress religious freedom threaten American and global security. Everyone should be encouraged by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s initiative to hold this ministerial. Protecting this fundamental right is not just a means of demonstrating our country’s bipartisan commitment to human dignity and global peace and stability, it’s in our national security interest.

Tenzin Dorjee serves as chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Kristina Arriaga serves as vice chair of USCIRF.