Today, October 27, 2021 is the twenty-third anniversary of the signing into law of the International Religious Freedom Act. Hence, it is International Religious Freedom Day!
The movement to defend global religious freedom has come a long way since the late 1990’s when such a thing was not even on the radar screen of most human rights activists. But it remains to be seen what the future holds for global religious freedom.
Before the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 became the law of the land, most defense of persecuted Christians and others was approached on a case by case basis. There have always been heroes in both Houses of Congress who cared about the persecuted. But as my friend and fellow advocate Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute said, “religious freedom is the red-headed stepchild of the human rights movement.” Nina also said, many years ago, when we were working for IRFA to become law, that the human rights and foreign policy elites are “myopic” when it comes to persecuted Christians and other minorities.
Working within the church communities as I did and still do, I applied Nina’s myopia assessment of the human rights community to the churches. If myopia is the ailment that prevents the secular world from rightly perceiving and acting on behalf of the persecuted church, I said that it is another disease altogether that keeps the churches in the United States from responding to their suffering brothers and sisters. Vast swaths of the Christian community have heart disease and need God to replace their stony hearts with hearts of flesh that feel the pain of persecuted Christians. This is still true, twenty-three years after IRFA became law and even with many more Christians bearing a burden for the persecuted.
I am thankful for the exceptional coalition that made IRFA possible. There was amazing cooperation between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, that came together to advance religious freedom around the globe. (Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of unity today?) In fact, one wag said he thought he would get whiplash, looking from far left to far right!
I am also thankful for influential Christian leaders who had the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of listeners and readers. I am thankful for tireless and fearless advocates like Nina, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute. And I am thankful for Jewish friends who exhibited more care and compassion for persecuted Christians than many Christians did!
There was Michael Horowitz whose Jewish faith would not allow him to “sit through another holocaust.” And there was A. M. (Abe) Rosenthal, whose columns on the persecution of Christians in Sudan, China, and elsewhere reached a far wider audience than we could otherwise hope in an era where “citizen journalists,” conservative talk radio, and prolific bloggers had not yet hit the scene. And there was Charles Jacobs, the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Group, who broke the story of the slavery of black Africans in Sudan and elsewhere in North Africa. Other mainstays of the movement were also Jewish – veteran activists of the campaign to free the Soviet Jews, who shared their experiences and offered their help to those of us as yet inexperienced in the ways of activism.
Nevertheless, the passing of this legislation was a watershed moment in advocacy for our brother and sister believers around the world. The Act provided new tools to help the persecuted church and others who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs.
IRFA included such provisions as the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the State Department Office of International Religious Freedom and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, as well as the concept of Countries of Particular Concern at both the State Department and USCIRF, and annual scrupulous reports. It also marked an unprecedented acknowledgement within U.S. foreign policy of the importance of religious faith. With all its faults and its implementation failures, IRFA has still afforded us far more opportunities to be strong advocates for persecuted religious believers than ever before.
Over the years, IRFA has been implemented to one degree or another. It was strengthened in its most recent re-authorization as the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act . When IRFA passed in 1998, some of the important teeth in that bill were knocked out (or maybe I should say surgically extracted) in order to make it more palatable — and passable! For some others that remained implementation was rare. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act returned some of those teeth.
Last year, June 2020, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order defending persecuted Christians and other religious believers around the world. The EO was titled “Advancing International Religious Freedom,” and it provided a new level of support we had not seen before. It prioritized the defense of people persecuted for their beliefs in a way that had been lifted as an ideal in the past, but had never given this particular set of teeth to be put into practice.
Not sure how much of that Executive Order is still active in the Biden Administration. I know that a well-developed plan to document atrocities against Nigerian Christians, including our Anglican brothers and sisters, was cancelled on the second day of that administration. It remains to be seen what provisions — especially for Christians — will survive from the EO, at the State Department and USAID.
The International Religious Freedom Act succeeded because we all stood together. So come what may, religious communities need to stand together, along with all of the advocates for the persecuted, for freedom of religion.
(Photo: Dr. William Saunders and Ambassador Sam Brownback discuss the importance of fighting for international religious freedom. Photo by Faith McDonnell.)