International Religious Freedom


October 27, 2018

International Religious Freedom Act — Twenty Years In

Saturday, October 27, 2018 is the twentieth anniversary of the signing into law of the International Religious Freedom Act. Conferences and retrospectives have been taking place all over town, as well as out of town. Some are “retrospecting” that weren’t even there when the battle to create a bill, mobilize the grassroots, and pass the bill in Congress took place. Suddenly international religious freedom has become sexy!

Well, good. I hope it stays that way. Because as my friend and fellow advocate Nina Shea says, “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 as I did (and do) within the church communities, I built on Nina’s assessment to extend 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 for God to replace their stony hearts with hearts of flesh that feel the pain of persecuted Christians. This is as true today, twenty years after global religious freedom became enshrined in U.S. foreign policy as a concern, as it was before IRFA.

I recently presented a reflection on my own on IRFA and on the wider international religious freedom movement in general for the Save The Persecuted Christians coalition summit. But here is my retrospective, as someone who was there from the time of the meetings in the Cannon House Office Building throughout 1997 and 1998 that began the whole process. I wrote this in 2008, on the ten year anniversary of IRFA and today I am adding my comments in italics to bring this retrospective up to the twentieth anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act:

International Religious Freedom, Ten Years and Counting

Faith McDonnell
August 12, 2008

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 twenty-five or so of us who had been invited to this celebration were ushered into the historic Roosevelt Room where soon President Bush arrived and greeted us. He 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. “

I thought about the staunch defenders of the persecuted in Congress. 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.” (Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of unity today?) 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 at the Hudson Institute. And I thought about Jewish friends who devoted their time and energy to the issue of Christian persecution.

One of the first agitators,without whom there would probably have never been an International Religious Freedom Act – whose passion for persecuted Christians convicted previously uninvolved Christians and stirred them to action – was my friend Michael Horowitz, whose Jewish faith 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. (Not that many of those Citizen Journalists today ever talk about Christian persecution!)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.” (We’re still waiting for THAT day!)

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.” (Let’s encourage President Trump to do the same with the current President of China, particularly considering the new levels of egregious persecution against Christians and others, such as the Uyghur.)

“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 the original 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.

Today, Friday, October 26, 2018, we are celebrating International Religious Freedom Day and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released the following statement that expresses President Trump and his Administration’s commitment to advancing religious freedom around the world:

Today we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRF Act) into law. The IRF Act expanded U.S. foreign policy capabilities to promote and defend religious freedom around the world. It builds on our founding fathers’ firm conviction that the freedom of individuals to believe as they see fit is a God-given right that is central to the success of a nation.

The protection of religious freedom is central to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and protecting this human right is an essential part of who we are as Americans. Religious freedom appears first among the rights enumerated in our Constitution. Where religious freedom flourishes, there is greater stability and more economic opportunity.

In the twenty years since the IRF Act was signed, we have made significant progress. I am proud of the team we have at the State Department, led by Ambassador Brownback, who work tirelessly to advance religious freedom every day. But on this day, we are also mindful of those places around the world where so many are not free to worship or live out their faith as they choose. Today, we reaffirm the inherent worth and dignity found in every person, who are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though the challenges to religious freedom are daunting, they are not insurmountable, and we will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that all may enjoy this universal freedom.


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