The International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF) brought together religious and political leaders from around the world to confront challenges facing religious liberty July 13-15 in Washington, D.C. A diverse cast of religious leaders including Archbishop Elpidophoros (the leading Greek Orthodox cleric in the U.S), Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Dalai Lama, and many others participated. A bipartisan group of politicians including Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback also participated.
It was organized by Brownback and former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Katrina Lantos Swett. President Donald Trump appointed Brownback as Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, and Brownback stepped down at the conclusion of his administration.
“In this room, exists the passion and the spirit to change the world from one of persecution of people of faith to one of liberty. You are the activists, the people of prayer, the visionaries to see and make the world as it should be,” said Brownback at the start of the conference.
The former State Department official called religious liberty the “most abused human right today” and urged summit attendees to “reach out to governments and cultures alike and say that freedom of faith is the way forward. If we don’t have religious freedom for all around the world, we will have the clash of civilizations – full of death and carnage. And you can see it setting up now.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken furthered Brownback’s defense of religious liberty, saying “Freedom of religion or belief is a human right. It goes to the heart of what it means to be human – to think freely, follow our conscience, change our beliefs if our hearts and minds lead us to do so, and express our beliefs in public and in private.”
The most powerful part of the conference was testimonies from individuals who suffered religious persecution abroad.
“We passed the days in fear, listening to the sounds of screaming and crying voices, wondering whether what happened to them would happen to us too,” passionately recounted Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Chinese Uyghur who was forced into a concentration camp for her Muslim faith.
Ziyawudun described systematic abuse, murder, brainwashing, and rape that are part of everyday life for people in the camps.
“I saw some of them bleed to death with my own eyes. Some of them even lost their minds in the camp,” Ziyawudun recalled with tears. One could not help being moved and angered by her descriptions of the state of Uyghurs in China.
Bob Fu, a Chinese Christian house church leader who was imprisoned for “illegal evangelism”, also spoke. He noted how just because there are religious freedom protections in the law, does not mean they are adhered to.
“If you read the Chinese constitution, Article 36: ‘Citizens of the people’s republic of China shall enjoy freedom of religious belief’ … but then there is an article down the road … ‘the state shall protect normal religious activities’ the word normal, that’s the devil,” said Fu.
There were also several exciting and essential side events at the conference. The Philos Project hosted an event discussing why international religious liberty policy has been unsuccessful in the past. The Heritage Foundation had a panel of international experts on religious freedom, including the Rev. Bernard Randall, an Anglican priest fired and reported to the police for teaching orthodox Christian beliefs about gender and sexuality. China Aid and In Defense of Christians also hosted events detailing Christian persecution in China and the Middle East, respectively.
The summit was able to garner support for specific actions to further religious freedom. Congressman Smith called for the U.S. to boycott the Olympics in Beijing over religious freedom violations. Attendees and speakers were also encouraged to sign the summit Charter of Religious Freedom, which reads: ”Every government, every religious community, and every political and civil society organization in the world should strive toward the goal of achieving freedom of religion and conscience, for everyone, everywhere – protected in law and valued by culture.”