Today is International Religious Freedom Day. I didn’t remember until I received a news release from Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) office marking the occasion that today is the 17th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Fancy forgetting the anniversary of something for which we worked so long and so hard!
Senator Rubio’s release points to one of the great achievements of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) — the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Rubio says,
This landmark legislation sought to infuse America’s first freedom into our foreign policy, and it has made great strides in doing so. One of the ways it did this was by establishing the bipartisan, independent, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which I was pleased to play a central role last month in reauthorizing for another four years.
But Senator Rubio also calls attention to the “relentless assaults on religious freedom around the world.” He says that this is a time not just for looking back, but that we have a moral responsibility “to renew America’s commitment to advocating for this most basic right whenever and wherever it comes under assault.”
Rubio speaks particularly of ISIS, and the slaughter and destruction that it is causing in the Middle East, declaring, “Until ISIS is defeated and destroyed, Christianity and other minority religions in the Middle East face an existential crisis.” He laments that the persecuted minorities, “despite being sustained by a steadfast faith, routinely express a pervasive sense of abandonment by the U.S. and our Western allies,” and explains that “these are the consequences of President Obama’s failed policies in Iraq and Syria – not only a failed military strategy but a failure to address the human consequences of this conflict.”
It was not for this kind of inaction that the International Religious Freedom Act was passed. In fact, it was meant to transform American foreign policy and enshrine religious freedom within it. Senator Rubio reiterates that conviction, saying, “Protecting religious freedom around the world must be a top priority of our foreign policy agenda” He urges, “all who love freedom to speak out against these offenses and press the Obama Administration to pursue policies that reflect the urgency of the situation for persecuted, oppressed, marginalized, and endangered communities of faith globally.”
Senator Rubio’s remarks remind me of those made by President George W. Bush at another commemoration of IRFA, seven years ago. In the summer of 2008, President Bush held a tenth anniversary celebration of IRFA to honor before he left office those who had played a role in influencing U.S. foreign policy on issues of religious freedom and the persecution of religious believers. I was privileged to be in that gathering of a few dozen people, and soon after, I wrote about it in a reflection on the International Religious Freedom Act and the grassroots efforts that made it possible. I have re-posted them for this 17th anniversary. It is interesting to note how things have changed over the years — changes both good and bad. I mentioned this in my video blog, Faith on Freedom: International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, Part 1.
International Religious Freedom—Ten Years and Counting
Last month I had the privilege of celebrating the tenth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act at the White House. This passing of this legislation was a watershed moment in advocacy for our brother and sister believers around the world. Not only did the act provide new tools to help the persecuted church and others who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs, it also marked an unprecedented acknowledgement within U.S. foreign policy of the importance of religious faith.
The 25 or so of us who had been invited to this celebration were ushered into the historic Roosevelt Room where President Bush soon arrived and greeted us. The president praised Congress’ defense of international religious freedom. He welcomed the members who were present—U.S. Representatives Frank Wolf, Chris Smith, and Trent Franks, as well as former senator, Don Nickles. “In too many countries, expressions of freedom were silenced by tyranny, intolerance and oppression,” the President began. “So a decade ago, members of Congress—I suspect some of the members here—and religious leaders and human rights activists came together to advance religious freedom around the globe. “
The ceremony brought to mind those members in Congress who have stood as staunch defenders of the persecuted. It is a privilege to work with political leaders whose selfless concern and faith shine forth in the halls of Capitol Hill. One of my proudest moments was to have drafted for them a resolution on Christian persecution that became the basis of both a House and a Senate resolution in 1996.
I thought about the exceptional cooperation between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, who, as President Bush said, “came together to advance religious freedom around the globe.” I thought about influential Christian leaders who had the ability to reach hundreds of thousands of listeners and readers. I thought about tireless and fearless advocates like my friend Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom. And I thought about Jewish friends who devoted their time and energy to the issue of Christian persecution.
One of the first agitators—whose passion for persecuted Christians convicted many previously uninvolved Christians and stirred them to action—was my friend Michael Horowitz, whose Jewish ancestry would not allow him to “sit through another holocaust.” 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. And another Jewish friend who could not keep silent once he learned of the persecution of Christians and other people of faith around the world was journalist and New York Times executive editor, the late Abe Rosenthal. Rosenthal’s 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. These Jewish friends supported the rest of us—Christians from across the denominations, along with Baha’is, Buddhists, and other human rights defenders.
President Bush tracked the progress of the International Religious Freedom Act. In Turkmenistan, the chief mufti (a jurist who interprets Islamic law) had been ousted and imprisoned for refusing to teach state propaganda as religious text. Because of U.S. government pressure, he was released and is now a religious affairs advisor. And while the Act has encouraged Vietnam to take some promising first steps toward religious liberty, “we’re going to continue to work toward the day when all Vietnamese are free to worship as they so desire,” said Bush. He urged countries such as Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, North Korea, Burma, and Saudi Arabia to “end their abuses of religious freedom” and “respect the rights of those who seek only to worship their God as they see fit.”
With the Beijing Olympics less than a month away, President Bush marked efforts to advance religious freedom and human rights in China. He noted meeting “those who attend underground churches in China,” and has said to China’s President Hu Jintao “so long as there are those who want to fight for their liberty, the United States stands with them.” He added that “whenever and wherever” he met leaders, he would “constantly remind them that they ought to welcome religion in their society, not fear it” and that believers would add to their society in constructive and peaceful ways.”
“We pray that all those who seek their God will be able to do so free of oppression and fear,” President Bush concluded. And I thought of how the Lord had answered our prayers to bring awareness of the persecuted church to U.S. churches and to the U.S. government. IRD had a key role in the creation of the annual International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP), for which I wrote devotional material. IDOP has been observed around the world and by thousands of U.S. churches and individuals.
President Bush declared that the International Religious Freedom Act “has placed religious liberty where it belongs—at the center of U.S. foreign policy.” We at IRD agree. Individual religious liberty is an essential ingredient of democracy and justice. But concern for the religious liberty of our persecuted brothers and sisters must also be at the center of who we are and what we do as American Christians. Prayer and advocacy made us conscious that we are one body of Christ around the world and brought about the International Religious Freedom Act. Continued prayer and advocacy will, by God’s grace, strengthen our connections to global Church and bring new measures of religious freedom to the world.