Last week the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, focused its spotlight on what religious freedom priorities should look like for the new Biden Administration. Guest Knox Thames postulated the five greatest challenges to religious freedom in the world today, declaring that China, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is “the first challenge to religious freedom” and “a category of its own.”
Thames, a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, joined Dwight Bashir, USCIRF director of outreach and policy, in conversation. He was previously the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities at the U.S. State Department, serving for five years under both the Obama and Trump Administrations.
In assessing the five greatest challenges the new Biden Administration will face when it comes to religious freedom, Thames stated that the biggest challenges are China, mass atrocities, terrorism, state repression and authoritarianism, and the new challenge of democracies becoming problematic environments for religious minorities.
After asserting that China is the greatest challenge and its own category when it comes to infringing on the religious freedom of its citizens, Thames stated, “With what’s happening to Uighurs, Tibetans, independent Christians, Falun Gong, and also the way that they’re [the CCP] flexing their muscles internationally, it’s going to be a challenge for religious freedom promotion and human rights defense globally.”
Thames’s second greatest stated challenge, mass atrocities, includes the recent designation of genocide against the Uighur Muslims in China that former Secretary of State Pompeo made in his final days in office, which current Sec. Antony Blinken has endorsed. This category also includes the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
The third category, terrorism, encompasses the targeting of Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, and other groups by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the treatment of Christians by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Thames sees state repression and authoritarianism as the fourth greatest challenge to religious freedom globally, specifically in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, North Korea, and Iran.
Lastly, Thames views the challenge of democracies that start to become problematic environments for religious minorities, such as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, as a novel problem.
“This will be a tough one because governments are responding to voters, so it’ll take new strategies and approaches” by the United States and other global leaders on issues of religious freedom to see positive change in such situations, asserted Thames.
Despite the fact that close to two thirds of the global population live in countries with high or very high restrictions from government or societal actors on religious freedom, Thames insisted that “we should be encouraged because we’re seeing new networks of governments, parliamentarians, and civil society actors coming together to fight for religious freedom for everybody.” “This is a first. A first in human history.”
Thames cited the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, which brought together over 100 governments and 1,000 members of civil society to advance religious freedom globally.
“It was the biggest event ever in State Department history, all around this idea of how do we promote religious freedom,” reminded Thames.
As for the Biden Administration continuing these policies, “I’m hopeful that the Biden Administration will really pick up this alliance and run with it,” stated Thames. “We’ve heard how President Biden wants to bring a multi-lateral approach diplomacy… and here’s a network that’s brand new that will align with their approach to foreign policy.”
Thames continued that he’s hopeful that the Biden Administration, with a “friend on the 7th floor” to these issues in Secretary of State Blinken, will adopt, energize, and push forward these U.S.-led global organizations for advancing religious freedom.
He reminded viewers that such alliances of diverse countries are not just welcomed, but necessary, to confront his stated greatest challenge to religious freedom globally — China.
“When you’re confronting a country like China that’s strong and increasingly a player on the global stage, we have to find other ways [than simply ‘naming’ and ‘shaming’],” asserted Thames.
The former State Department special advisor recently penned an opinion piece in Foreign Policy titled “Why the Persecution of Muslims Should Be on Biden’s Agenda.” The article can be read here.