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The British Are Coming: UK Takes Religious Freedom Torch from US

London ministerial and DC summit highlight transatlantic commitment by governments and NGOs to freedom of religion or belief.
The British Are Coming: UK Takes Religious Freedom Torch from US
Rashad Hussain, US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom (IRF), speaks at the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in London.

The epicenter of advocacy for international religious freedom (IRF) has crossed the pond. Last week, the United Kingdom hosted the first in-person government ministerial on the issue to be held outside the United States.

Under the Trump administration, the US State Department inaugurated the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018. The event reconvened in Washington in 2019 and the following year moved to Poland, which was forced to conduct proceedings online due to COVID-19. Pandemic distractions prevented Brazil from hosting the ministerial in 2021, but civil society and religious groups rallied to organize the first IRF Summit in DC instead.

In 2020, 27 nations seized the ministerials’ momentum to create the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), centered on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Declaring that “everyone has freedom to believe or not believe, to change faith, to meet alone for prayer or corporately for worship,” IRFBA has since grown to include 36 countries, an additional five national “friends,” and two observers—including the UN-designated special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), the preferred terminology for IRF in Europe.

As IRFBA chair, the UK hosted the Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief on July 5–6 in London.

“Millions of people are being deprived an education or a job or a home or access to justice or liberty, even to life itself,” said Fiona Bruce, the UK prime minister’s special envoy for FoRB, “simply on account of what they believe.”

The UK demonstrated leadership on the issue in 2021, when as chair of the Group of Seven—a political forum of the world’s leading democratic economies—Britain secured the first-ever mention of FoRB as a priority within the G7 official communique.

“The ministerial helped create a heightened global consciousness on FoRB, a cornerstone of all human rights,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, ambassador for religious freedom for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “Where FoRB is violated, all other human rights suffer.”

Hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Center in Parliament Square, the 2022 ministerial included remarks delivered by Prince Charles and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spoke on behalf of Britain’s Jews.

Regional foreign minister Tariq Ahmad, a Muslim, delivered a statement welcoming the 500 delegates from more than 100 countries. Sources told CT the UK did an exceptional job integrating the dozens of civil society and religious groups into the official proceedings.

With better coordination—and a wider berth from Americans’ July 4 observance of Independence Day—attendance might have been even larger.

Only a few days before the UK ministerial, the second IRF Summit again invited advocates to Washington. More than 1,000 delegates, representing more than 40 faith traditions, gathered at a DC hotel. With IRF being one of the few issues to transcend the American political divide, video remarks were delivered by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his predecessor Mike Pompeo, as well as by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D) and Senator Marco Rubio (R).

IRF Summit executive director Peter Burns said the second gathering wanted to do more than recreate past collaboration. Beyond the many plenary sessions and niche side events, a civil society congress was created and an authors’ track organized to promote topical resources. NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom received an IRF advocacy award and auctioned off his size-16 shoes.

The UK ministerial was a “huge step forward,” said Burns, who served as special assistant to Ambassador Sam Brownback when his IRF office hosted the State Department ministerials.

“Going on the road was always the dream,” said Burns. “Long considered the orphan of human rights issues, concern for religious freedom is finally forcing itself into the international system.”

Bruce, appointed to her envoy position in 2020, apologized via video that she could not attend the DC summit in person due to final preparations for the London ministerial mere days away. But the UK had been “inspired” by the American efforts, and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss paid homage—while noting British seniority.

Calling out abuses in China, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, she cited the Magna Carta and Franklin Roosevelt—whose wife Eleanor was a chief UDHR author—as champions of FoRB.

“Authoritarians and oppressors feel threatened by the freedom of religion or belief, fearing it will encourage people to think freely and question their authority,” she said. “We cannot allow them to win.”

Civil society advocates pledged to hold her and other friendly governments accountable. All attendees were asked to sign a petition for their countries to appoint a FoRB envoy or special ambassador, adequately resourced to ensure national commitment.

Following the gathering, the European Union designated an Italian professor and former MP, Mario Mauro, as its third envoy after a 10-month vacancy.

“Religious freedom must be a central plank of all governments’ domestic and diplomatic policies,” said Danny Webster, director of advocacy for the UK Evangelical Alliance. “But words can only ever mean so much until they are backed up by substantial action and long-term commitment.”

Such sentiments were frequent at both gatherings.

“Religion is the one entity that can stand up to government, that government cannot subdue,” Brownback said at the DC event. “This is a friendship summit—pick a project and work together.”

There were several to choose from.

Wade Kusack, senior fellow for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement, participated with Kazakh politicians at both meetings. He touted the nine cities in Kazakhstan hosting religious freedom roundtables, as well as reforms in the once-derided nation.

The IRF summit was a bottom-up approach, while the UK ministerial was top-down. Both are necessary, he said, but the latter can open doors.

“The blending of government and civil society provides a platform for cross-sectoral relationships,” said Kusack. “It was a great opportunity for foreign officials to gain meaningful and nonthreatening exposure to the FoRB world.”

Taking advantage for the first time was Attalaki, a Tunisian human rights organization founded by evangelical Christians. They spoke with dignitaries about the National Charter for Peaceful Coexistence, signed in February with many of Tunisia’s religious groups, including Sufis, Shiites, and Jews. The three-year, nonofficial document was observed by the North African nation’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, which earlier created a department for minority religions.

“Countries showing improvement have governments who are engaged but also robust civil society activities,” said Nadine Maenza, former chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “All countries in IRFBA should work together in a super strategic way to incentivize the others.”

Neither Kazakhstan nor Tunisia are members.

The “broad statement” of the UK ministerial was signed by 30 nations. Of note, it did not follow the civil society pledge to appoint special IRF envoys. And there was a distinct orientation: Only three non-Western nations (Israel, Japan, and Kenya) and two Muslim-majority nations (Albania and Bosnia) affixed their signatures.

There was some sentiment that a unique role existed for the two transatlantic hosts. One panel convened in Westminster Abbey queried how the “special relationship” between the US and the UK could advance religious freedom around the globe.

Speakers included Brownback; Rehman Chishti, the former UK special envoy for FoRB; and Philip Mounstephen, the bishop of Truro whose 21 religious-freedom recommendations to the UK government—published in 2019 and evaluated last April—were welcomed by Truss in her opening speech.

Maenza said her closest international partners are mostly from the UK.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican bishop of Rochester and now a prelate to Pope Francis, asserted an even closer bond. English and American commitments to religious freedom developed organically, he said, producing the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. Too many continentals, however, are heirs of the “radical Enlightenment.”

While “mere reason” can be contested, a mindfulness to tradition has provided a basic of cooperation across the swath of civilizational heritage, he said.

“The European idea is pure rationalism, from which they try to derive human dignity,” said Nazir-Ali. “Our organic tradition comes from the Christian faith.”

The result of the former is a truncation of religious values and culture, he said, which the Anglo-Saxon idea can help overcome. But without it is confusion.

Is FoRB an abstract value or the protection of individual conscience and community belief—public and private? Muslim nations might better participate, he said, if a robust commitment to religious freedom is encouraged from within their faith. (The 2019 ministerial explored “human dignity” as a potential avenue.)

Among the demonstrable unity of advocates were clear points of divergence. Yasonna Laoly, Indonesia’s minister of law and human rights, argued at the IRF summit in favor of his Southeast Asian nation’s blasphemy laws. He was preceded on the DC mainstage by President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, who complained of Western criticism—including from the State Department—for his nation’s pro-life commitments.

And alongside the ministerial’s broad statement were seven other documents of thematic concern. The one advocating for “diverse sexual orientations or gender identities” garnished 22 signatures—with the US absent—before it was removed from the official list.

Overall, however, sources praised the success of both events.

“You can’t find another stage in DC shared by the Family Research Council, the Aspen Institute, Meta, and BYU Law,” said Burns. “This just doesn’t happen, but it can when it comes to international religious freedom—because we can all agree on this fundamental human right.”

As the epicenter moves from Washington to Warsaw to London to Brazil in 2023, sources celebrated the demonstration of diverse commitment. And in keeping with the increasingly blended IRF world, last week the United Nations appointed Nazila Ghanea as its new FoRB special rapporteur.

A professor of international human rights law at Britain’s Oxford University, Ghanea is an Iranian citizen with a focus on the oft-oppressed Bahá'i religious minority.

“It is wonderful moving the ministerial around the world, giving other countries the opportunity to lead on religious freedom,” said Maenza, newly appointed president of the IRF Secretariat, which oversees 26 roundtable groups around the world.

“This is not an American or a British right but a global cause.”

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