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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

How Joe Biden and Boris Johnson can protect freedom of religion

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

As we reflect on key religious time of the year with Easter, Passover and Ramadan all in recent weeks, it is right that we refocus our attention on the vital issue of freedom of religion or belief around the world.

But for billions of people around the world, this season will be marked by a pandemic of persecution on account of religion or belief. The Pew Research Center reported that religious restrictions impact almost two-thirds of the global community. Christians of all denominations experience repression. Uyghur Muslims in China and Rohingya Muslims in Burma face genocide-like persecution. Yezidis, Bahai's, Hindus, converts, atheists, people of all faiths, and none suffer.

Five challenges that require urgent attention. But despite this grim outlook, if the United Kingdom and the United States work together, there are realistic steps that can bring about achievable gains.

The first and biggest challenge to religious freedom is China. Beijing targets Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, independent Christians, and others. The US and the UK, along with Canada and the EU, have acted together, collectively sanctioning two Chinese officials for their rights abuses against Uyghurs. But the problem continues.

The second challenge is mass atrocities. Many welcomed the genocide designation against China announced by then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before leaving office and endorsed by Secretary Tony Blinken. What the Chinese government is perpetrating against Uyghur Muslims shocks the conscience. In nearby Burma, the army's treatment of Rohingya Muslims has reached genocidal levels, and we should call it as such.

The third issue is terrorism. ISIS violently targets religious minorities or dissenting members of the majority faith. They and al Qaeda victimize Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and others in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Boko Haram in Nigeria continues to attack Christians with impunity.

The fourth challenge is "old-fashioned" authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Iran, and Eritrea. In these contexts, police arrest believers or dissenters, close places of worship, or deny the ability to meet. The power of the state is brought to bear against religious activity deemed illegal or unorthodox.

The final category will be the toughest: persecution via the ballot box. In democracies, voters can transform the beliefs into law. For example, the Modi government is tilting away from the Indian constitution's secular foundations. We see similar moves in Sri Lanka targeting Muslims by banning face veils. When democracies go wrong, it will be tough to engage.

To meet these challenges, sustained engagement by the United Kingdom and the United States is needed. Restoring respect for freedom of conscience and belief will be difficult, but not impossible.

First, a holistic approach to freedom of religion or belief will ensure the most durable gains. While always advocating for the persecuted, remaining broadly committed to the right for all is the surest recipe for lasting success. If Muslims are being persecuted, we should speak out the same way if Christians are being persecuted. Yazidis or Baha’is, converts or atheists, whomever suffers. We advance freedom of religion or belief for all.

Boris Johnson’s planned visit to India, for instance, is one such opportunity to demonstrate this commitment. It was certainly welcome news to see freedom of religion or belief covered as a “priority action” in the Integrated Review.

Secondly, create consequences for persecution. Recent improvements in Sudan came about due to leverage created by U.S. religious freedom blacklist and pressure from the international community. Such designations created political will to undertake needed reforms, such as changing laws, releasing prisoners, and allowing greater freedom of worship and practice. It and other tools should be utilized in places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as Eritrea and Algeria.

The UK took a step in the right direction when, thanks to the leadership of Lord David Alton, the House of Commons passed an amendment to the Trade Bill requiring the British government to formally to state its position when considering free trade agreements, should a parliamentary Select Committee raise credible reports of genocide. While the compromise did not achieve everything Lord Alton and others including MPs Nusrat Ghani and Iain Duncan Smith wanted in their "Genocide Amendment," it will create consequences for countries perpetrating mass atrocities.

And as we saw with China announcing sanctions against Lord Alton and others, they will push back when scrutinized. That demonstrates the relevance of our last point: the importance of working in coalition with others. For the first in human history, positive forces are marshaling across political, religious, and geographic lines to push back against persecution.

We’ve both seen the strength and global reach when the UK and US work together, but durable success will not occur by our actions alone. Our countries have partnered to create new networks of governments, parliamentarians, and civil society, which provides unique opportunities for co-ordinated action. The UK hosting the G7 presidency this year is an excellent opportunity to put freedom of religion or belief at the very centre of the international community’s agenda. This is even more important considering the high level of persecution of religious minorities we have seen during Covid-19.

Achieving gains in global religious freedom will need the combined leadership and resources our countries, while working in partnership with others. The global picture is dark. But together, the United Kingdom, the United States, and our likeminded allies can spur progress by focusing on these key areas.

Rehman Chishti is a former UK Prime Minister's Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief and is a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington D.C.. Knox Thames served as the U.S. State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

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