The message that international religious freedom advocates have been sharing all along—that prioritizing religious freedom is crucial for human flourishing and national stability—is increasingly catching on, with this year’s International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit reflecting the growth of their global, interfaith movement over the past five years.
The summit, held this week in Washington, DC, has been a key part of mounting momentum around bringing more attention to religious persecution around the world, with sessions this year addressing crises from Nigeria to Nicaragua.
“In so many of the global crises around the world, there’s a religious freedom dimension,” said Jeremy Barker, director of the Middle East Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute, who has seen greater recognition for the IRF cause over the past five years. “It’s not marginal but mainstream.”
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, which required the US State Department to make religious freedom an essential aspect of its foreign policy focus, and the United States has continued to see public victories for the cause. Former president Donald Trump nominated an IRF ambassador within six months, something his predecessors took many more months to do, and elevated the position of the IRF office within the State Department.
The Trump administration also put on the initial two IRF summits as government-hosted ministerials, followed by other nations including Poland, the United Kingdom, and Czechia. (The ongoing US summit is now organized by civil society.) Former IRF ambassador Sam Brownback also oversaw the launch of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, a global focus group which now includes 37 member nations.
At this year’s summit, the current US IRF ambassador, Rashad Hussain, said he makes sure IRF officials are represented in State Department foreign policy meetings to highlight how religious freedom is an imperative for national security.
“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. “It is an essential part of our foreign policy, and we see evidence for that all around the world.”
The movement has also made strides on the global stage, with leaders in other nations stepping up to host religious freedom roundtables modeled after the longrunning US model, with support from the recently created IRF Secretariat.
“The issues are beginning to be recognized as a bit more mainstream,” Barker said. “Certainly from the administration side—senior people from the State Department, from USAID—are looking at democracy promotion, countering violent extremism … and see religious freedom as having something to say in those spaces.”
Meanwhile, deteriorating religious freedom conditions can be observed around the world.
In its 2024 World Watch List, Open Doors reported that over 365 million Christians live in countries experiencing high levels of persecution or discrimination. The organization found that all 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels, according to Open Doors’ metrics—only the fourth time that has happened since 1993, the first year of the report.
There are sobering examples of the persecution of religious minorities worldwide. Religiously motivated genocides have been recognized by the United States in China against Uyghur Muslims and in Burma against Rohingya Muslims.
The 2023 annual report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted dismal conditions for religious minorities in many countries, including the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and Hindu nationalism’s rise in India leading to discriminatory laws, mob and vigilante violence, and destruction of mosques and churches.
At the summit, Brownback said religious freedom is essential to the flourishing of human rights: “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.”
The summit kicked off with an “advocacy day” Monday where attendees from various faiths flocked to Capitol Hill for meetings with lawmakers.
Over Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 70 speakers discussed worsening situations of religious freedom in Nigeria, India, Ukraine, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere. They also discussed how military conflicts have exacerbated religious repression, from Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Breakout sessions looked at religious minorities in the Middle East, the use of technology by repressive regimes, and the Israel-Hamas war, with one private session showing raw footage from the October 7 terrorist attack.
The annual event strives to be bipartisan, featuring politicians from both sides of the aisle who called on the United States to do more to flex its powers to pressure bad actors.
“This should not be a partisan issue,” House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said of China’s brutalization of Uyghur Muslims, who have suffered torture, re-education, forced labor, and imprisonment in internment camps. He also decried reports of organ harvesting of Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former Democratic National Committee chair and member of the Appropriations Committee in the House, said that she’s made an effort to prioritize robust funding for US-led and international efforts to promote religious freedom for all, including those who don’t practice any faith.
“In my time in Congress, I’ve seen immense progress in our government’s efforts to hold repressive regimes accountable and provide justice for the downtrodden,” she said.
Former vice president Mike Pence argued that the United States should pressure oppressive regimes through existing trade agreements, at one point singling out Nicaragua.
“The time has come for the United States to make it clear to Nicaragua that we will not tolerate action against, suppression of, church leaders and religious leaders in Nicaragua without consequence,” he said at the summit. Since 2004, Nicaragua has had a free trade agreement with the United States.
The Nicaraguan government has cracked down on Catholics and evangelicals since 2018, closing ministries, imprisoning church leaders, and deporting Catholic clergy. A priest who had been imprisoned under Daniel Ortega’s regime spoke from behind a screen about the persecution.
“We are the most powerful economy on earth,” Pence said. “And we ought to make it clear to Nicaragua that you will begin to respect the religious liberty of people of every faith or our relationship will change.”
Pence also called for the United States to impose economic pressure on China due to the ongoing US-recognized genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang region.
Another panel spotlighted the “double persecution” women face: Lou Ann Sabatier, a veteran communications consultant and cofounder of the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) Women’s Alliance, noted that persecution comes not only from government or non-state actors but also from communities and families, making the oppression unseen.
Women in minority religions experience persecution from their network of close relationships in the domestic sphere, panelists noted: They’re forced into marriages, physically abused to force conversions, subjected to sexual violence and rape, and cut off from family support if they seek to convert.
Open Doors’ 2023 report on gender noted that sexual abuse “may be the most common way to persecute Christian women and girls” around the world.
Every attendee or speaker Christianity Today interviewed mentioned the deteriorating conditions in Nigeria, where 50,000 Christians have died over the last 14 years due to the rise of Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province, and Fulani extremists, according to a Nigerian civil rights group, the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law.
Open Doors also agreed that the deadliest country for Christians over the last year was Nigeria. Over 4,100 Christians were killed in the West African nation last year, representing over 80 percent of Christians killed globally. Open Doors’ report is considered to lean on the conservative side in its estimates of the number of Christians killed for their faith.
“No one knows the real number, but it’s really high and it’s higher than the official numbers,” Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, told CT. “You know, people go in after these attacks, and they’ll find people for days in the bushes. Either they run out from their homes or run out in the night or are shot and slashed. So the count is higher. … It’s a slow-moving genocide.”
King has advocated for Christian victims of persecution since 2003. His upcoming book, The Whisper, is a devotional focused on what persecuted Christians and martyrs can teach the church.
“We tend to think of [the persecuted] as our very poor cousins. But that’s not it at all,” said King. “They’re family. But they are our very wealthy relations, and they’re way ahead of us.”
King said the testimonies of persecuted Christians have taught him “what it means to be a Christian.”
“Our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church, they have their doctorates in suffering,” he said. “They went to seminaries called torture, imprisonment, endurance. These are the most effective seminaries in the world to make you go deep with God.”