Fighting for Religious Freedom Around the World in D.C.

Sam Brownback (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On Oct. 27, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the International Religious Freedom Act. The act made religious freedom abroad a priority for America’s diplomacy and gave the United States some bite by requiring sanctions for countries that violated religious liberty. In 1998, then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., voted to pass the IRF Act. Two decades later he is the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, a position the IRF Act created.

Brownback told me about the landscape of religious freedom abroad, including positives he sees under the Trump administration, and constant threats that require watchfulness and action. Here are some edited excerpts of our conversation.

What motivated you in 1998, and what did you hope would change? We didn’t think the foreign policy establishment was addressing the issues of religious freedom sufficiently. There were all these cases around the world—a number of us working to get people out of prison in various countries, or people of minority faiths being persecuted. We felt [the act] was something we needed in the State Department. It’s taken a while to get established in the human rights world, but it’s coming along now.

What strides have been made over the past 20 years, and what threats are looming? Unfortunately, there are more threats than expansion over the last 20 years. Eighty percent of the world lives in a religiously restrictive atmosphere. There was a real burst of religious liberty and freedom after the fall of communism. Now, a lot of people are more religiously restrictive, to favor the domestic majority religion, or to hold down a minority. They don’t trust religion because they can’t control it. As if you could control God.

Where you think that constriction comes from? A lot of countries look at religion as something that they want to try to control—even though virtually every country in the world signed the UN Declaration on Human Rights that included religious freedom. But then nobody was really pushing countries: “Look, you signed the agreement to stand for religious freedom and you’re not doing it. Why not?” It’s U.S. leadership that now is stepping up much more aggressively to push this right.

At the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this July, countries talked about their intentions regarding religious freedom. Talks, speeches, and signing declarations are great, but what action have you seen since the ministerial? We’ve seen several countries appoint ambassadors for religious freedom to be focal points for pushing religious freedom internationally. We’re working with nine different countries to host regional religious freedom events.

We’re going to do the ministerial again next year. It’s the only forum in the world where religious freedom advocates can get to key government leaders about issues in their country. And then specific cases—Pastor Andrew Brunson’s being freed. The president put sanctions on Turkey for holding him, which has never been done before.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Harvest Prude