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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

NEWSWEEK: Trans-Atlantic Efforts Advance Freedom of Religion

The United States and the United Kingdom have worked closely on joint efforts to promote freedom of religion and belief worldwide. It's a reflection of our shared values, and the partnership presents unique opportunities for joint action. And the time to act against a pandemic of persecution is now.

Religious repression is at all-time highs. The Pew Forum reported that 84 percent of the global population lives in countries with "high" or "very high" restrictions on faith practices. That doesn't mean everyone is persecuted, but it does suggest the space for freedom of conscience is shrinking. People of all faiths and worldviews are affected by these trends, which have implications beyond human rights, including international security and the growth of violent religious extremism.

Solving a problem this large requires diverse coalitions. Through our work, we recognized the substantial advantages of partnerships with like-minded governments. Thankfully, there is sustained interest in trans-Atlantic efforts to promote this fundamental freedom.

Holistically advocating for everyone's rights, as opposed to focusing on just one community, is the best approach. We grounded our activities in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience, the right to change faith or have no faith, to meet alone or with others for worship and to share one's religious views. While, of course, we should speak out when individual groups face persecution, we must do so in the context of advocating for the right of religious freedom for all. A balanced approach will ensure space for all beliefs.

Why? We've seen that it's the most durable path to guaranteeing that right over the long haul. An environment where every individual is free to seek truth as his or her conscience leads is one in which every community can thrive. And by understanding the broader challenges to religious freedom, we can see the problem more clearly and find effective solutions.

In contrast, narrower efforts like Hungary's focus on Christian persecution or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation's concentration on Muslim persecution will likely fall short of their long-term goals. It's not that Christian and Muslim persecution isn't happening—it most definitely is, and we must speak out. But an environment providing comprehensive and inclusive freedom of conscience will ensure that individual communities can survive in the future.

Working closely with Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, we instilled this approach into the new International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance and its founding charter. Alongside our Dutch and Brazilian counterparts, as well as UN special rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed and key civil society experts, we helped build an organization of 30-plus nations from different regional, political and religious backgrounds. Of course, none of these countries are perfect, but they all agreed to uphold their Article 18 commitments at home and abroad, including on contentious issues like conversion and free speech.

Working together with those committed to the same principles, we can meet the challenges of today. This alliance has devised new strategies to advocate for all, including a statement on COVID to ensure that the pandemic doesn't become a pretext for limiting religious freedom. Another vital network we participated in with Canada—the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief—was also grounded in this religious-freedom-for-all approach.

In the face of new challenges and opportunities, progress will depend on North American and European leadership. Threats facing religious freedom are beyond the capabilities or influence of any one government or organization. Fortunately, our common understanding creates a platform for coordinated and elevated activity.

The time is right for a more assertive trans-Atlantic approach, but parliamentarians and governments must demonstrate a lasting commitment to the right. Freedom of thought, conscience and belief isn't a conservative or liberal value or some sideshow to other issues, but a fundamental human right relevant to people of all faiths and none worldwide. It deserves the full attention of the international community.

Pressing repressive governments toward reform will not be easy or cost-free. China is playing hardball with its persecution of Uighurs, Tibetans and Christians, and exerts pressure against countries daring to speak out. Pakistan's abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. Burma's genocide against the Rohingya grinds on, while Christians in Nigeria suffer at the hands of Boko Haram. The scourge of anti-Semitism continues to spread.

In response, networking efforts among like-minded allies can share the burden and multiply the effectiveness of bilateral engagements. For instance, sanctions and other corrective measures like the Magnitsky Act, which our countries have implemented, can create political leverage to encourage change. Hopefully, others in Europe will follow. Speaking out on specific cases or broad trends can help, such as on Yemen or blasphemy laws. Our countries can use our UN Security Council seats to press for further reforms. We can share data and train diplomats. All European and North American countries can immediately respond to atrocity crimes, including genocide, and establish early warning systems.

While the new networks and alliances are promising, more action is needed to meet the challenges to freedom of religion or belief. Meetings alone do not equal success. To motivate repressive systems to change, governments must take this human right seriously and incorporate concerns across their policies. People of faith must speak up for persecuted believers (and non-believers) from other communities, standing in solidarity with the repressed. Religious leaders should tackle the issue head-on, using their pulpits to advocate soul freedom for all.

Everyone speaking up for everyone, both inside and outside their belief system, maximizes the global impact of our efforts. By working together, rights-respecting countries on both sides of the Atlantic can make a difference.

Rehman Chishti is a Member of the British Parliament (representing Gillingham & Rainham) and is the former UK Prime Minister's Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Knox Thames served as the U.S. Special Advisor on Religious Minorities at the State Department for both the Obama and Trump administrations.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.

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