Religious freedom is a foundational building block of American identity, as enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. But how does the U.S. actively live out its mission to protect religious freedom at home and around the world?
In my first week as an intern at the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD), I was introduced to an extensive network of international religious freedom advocates, most of whom I previously hadn’t known existed. In fact, I think few Americans understand just how many organizations and individuals are working to protect and promote religious freedom here in Washington, DC. And not only are there far more organizations working on this cause than one might expect, but many of these groups also meet together to harmonize their efforts. This is made possible through the coordination of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable, which is “a convener of NGOs and individuals from any and no faith that works for freedom of religion or belief” based here in Washington, DC.
The IRF Roundtable convenes at least twice per month under the facilitation of U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. Brownback previously served in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and as Governor of Kansas before beginning his ambassadorial tenure in early 2018. Brownback, a Roman Catholic, has a history of supporting religious freedom throughout his long career in politics. During his time as a U.S. Senator, Brownback was a key player in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the law that has been instrumental in encouraging policymakers to incorporate international religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy. The Act created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as well as Brownback’s current role, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
Brownback, in his role as the facilitator of IRF Roundtable meetings, welcomes leaders from all religious backgrounds and nongovernmental advocates for religious freedom to the Roundtable meetings. In addition to planning the annual State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the Roundtable hears brief statements from members of religious communities that have historically or are currently facing religious persecution in any location in the world. In the two meetings that I’ve attended, I’ve heard speakers from the UAE, China, Iran, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Vietnam describe their experiences through these statements. Some statements celebrate success stories of instances in which international religious freedom has been advanced in a particular country or region. Some statements, however, are desperate pleas to Brownback to address ongoing religious persecution in particular locations throughout the world. Many of the latter are personal, painful, and gut-wrenching to listen to. But Brownback gives his complete attention to each one of these voices
In some cases, the best the Ambassador can do is listen respectfully to those who ask for his help. But in other cases, Brownback can provide tangible assistance to those who bring their requests before him. At the first IRF Roundtable meeting that I attended, a woman came forth and informed the Ambassador that several members of her church had gone missing while on a mission trip to an East African nation. She believed that those missing had been detained and imprisoned by local police. After explaining more of the specific details to Brownback, the woman asked the ambassador if there was anything he could do to help the members of her church return home safely. Brownback informed her that he would get in contact with the local embassy immediately and that he would try to bring the members of her church home.
At the second IRF Roundtable meeting I attended, which took place only seven days after the first, Brownback announced that those members of the woman’s church had, in fact, been detained and imprisoned, but that they had been freed and returned home safely to the United States. All of that, in less than a week! It is this sort of heroic work that takes place behind the scenes in Washington, D.C. that few Americans know about or appreciate. Accomplishments such as these are often ignored by major media outlets, meaning that some advocates for international religious freedom don’t receive any recognition for their valiant efforts. But many of those in D.C. who fight for international religious freedom don’t expect gratitude–for them, it is sufficient to know that their efforts produce meaningful advances in international religious freedom, regardless of the public recognition that they’ll likely never receive
One month ago, I had no idea that this network of advocates even existed. But after having experienced international religious freedom advocacy firsthand while interning at the IRD, I have truly been inspired by the sincerity and passion that motivates the members of the IRF Roundtable. I look forward to remaining actively engaged with this community throughout my internship at the IRD, and my hope is that more Americans pay attention to the noble work of advancing international religious freedom that takes places every day here in DC.