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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Saving International Religious Freedom

Twenty-five years ago, landmark legislation birthed a new era for religious freedom diplomacy. Has the International Religious Freedom Act stood the test of time?

Where do we go from here?” the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. asked in his final book, published in 1968, the year of his tragic murder. Taking inspiration from his visionary leadership, human rights activists should ask that question again, as the International Religious Freedom Act turns 25 this year. A quarter of a century after its passage in 1998, where do we go from here to end religious persecution?

A groundbreaking piece of legislation, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA or “the Act”) mandated the protection and promotion of religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority. The Act created special offices, reports, and designations to spur reforms, break prisoners free, and represent American values internationally. However, while U.S. efforts have helped the persecuted and brought positive change, they have not stemmed the seemingly inexorable rise of restrictions and unending oppression. Consequently, IRFA’s silver anniversary presents a timely inflection point to ensure American human rights advocacy meets the challenge of twenty-first-century religious persecution.

A Fleeting Opportunity

Much has changed in 25 years. When IRFA passed in 1998, two young techies were beginning a small company called Google. Apple debuted the first iMac, and only 26 percent of American households had internet access, as the iPhone was still nine years into the future. Seinfeld aired its final episode, and the movie Titanic ruled the box office. The Europeans agreed on the euro as a common currency. The global concern was Y2K, not COVID. America enjoyed a pinnacle of international standing not experienced since the end of World War II. Having won the cold war, the United States was an unrivaled superpower.

In this unique moment, legislators and activists sought to leverage U.S. influence for good. While certainly spurred by concerns of Christian persecution, IRFA gave the U.S. government unprecedented tools and authorities to promote religious freedom for all. For the first time in history, one country decided to promote the rights of other nationals representing all faiths and none. The Act created a religious freedom ambassador at the U.S. Department of State, supported by a special office. IRFA required the State Department to report annually on religious freedom, pulling back the veil of secrecy, informing advocacy and embarrassing governments to change, all bolstered by the threat of sanctions. At the same time, the Act established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to provide information and recommendations on international religious freedom at a time when news was hard to gather and vet. The IRFA-created religious freedom ambassador and USCIRF commissioners could travel the globe to encourage reform.

Yet this moment would not last. We did not know at the time that it was pre-everything that shapes our world today. The series of events beginning with the tragedy of September 11, 2001, weakened America’s global position and encouraged the rise of rivals. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and their fellow travelers became existential threats to religious minorities and reformers in failed and failing states. All while authoritarians crushed faith groups they feared and some democracies turned illiberal, at the cost of ethnic and religious minorities.

The global climate for faith freedom grew dimmer despite the expansion of U.S. advocacy. We know conditions worsened thanks to statistics collected by the Pew Research Center. After the Act’s passage, Pew researchers began mining the data from State Department and USCIRF reports to understand global conditions. For a decade Pew documented persistent, and often increasing, limitations on the free practice of faith. These reports have quantifiably shown the stubborn challenge of religious persecution. Today roughly two-thirds of humanity lives in countries with significant restrictions on faith practices. Some say this proves the failure of IRFA mechanisms to end persecution, but Pew reports cannot quantify how much worse things would have been absent U.S. advocacy.

Underused Tools

While the United States could not stop the rising tide of global oppression as the drafters of IRFA hoped, the tools proved their ability to change circumstances on the ground and influence other nations. The problem has not been the utility of these tools but the infrequency of their use. Too often policymakers relied on paper statements, praying that “naming and shaming” without consequences could bring reforms. However, persecutors soon learned they had little to fear other than occasional embarrassment following a U.S. report or statement. Without consequences, U.S. religious freedom diplomacy proved feeble more often than not.

But the IRFA tools have worked when used together. The bright spots over the past quarter century provide lessons to build from. IRFA mechanisms spurred significant progress in Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and even Saudi Arabia to a lesser extent, regarding textbook reform. When American policymakers robustly applied the tools, the United States moved the needle in tangible ways that improved conditions and saved lives.

In addition, as global conditions darkened, the United States realized the power of partnership. The U.S. government could not defend this besieged fundamental human right by itself. So while for decades the United States stood alone with our unique approach, today a multinational religious freedom movement includes governments from different regions, political backgrounds, and faith traditions, all united in joint advocacy. The same is true for civil society. The original, diverse coalition fighting for the Act was extraordinary at the time, but now multifaith advocacy is increasingly the norm.

Consequently, as we remember the past decades, we must continue to look ahead. As I write in my forthcoming book Ending Persecution, there are steps the United States can take to ensure lasting impact. We need not give up and walk away, nor should we tear up the entire system. Small fixes combined with a recommitment to consequential diplomacy can reinvigorate U.S. efforts. To revitalize and strengthen U.S. international religious freedom advocacy for the next 25 years and ensure it works effectively and impactfully, policymakers and advocates should focus on three themes: Regenerate, Innovate, and Advocate.


We must continually reinforce and renew mechanisms created a quarter century ago. First, we need to revitalize the “country of particular concern” (CPC) mechanism. The CPC process should be more than a list of deplorables; it should be something that drives diplomatic activity bolstered by a real threat of consequences. At present it mainly serves the helpful function of expressing U.S. disdain for persecuting countries. While important, just describing problems through reports and blacklists will not turn the tide. We need to actively engage persecution by bringing the full force and influence of the United States, along with our partners, to spur positive change. We have seen the CPC designation’s positive impact in Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia when policymakers smartly leveraged American power and influence to induce reforms that otherwise would not have happened. It can work. I’ve seen it work. We just don’t use it enough.

We must also regenerate bipartisan support. IRFA’s passage was a tremendous success story, enjoying near-unanimous support from both parties and signed into law by a Democratic president. Yet such political backing is a shadow of what existed in 1998. The horrors of ISIS momentarily brought the issue back to the forefront, but a sustainable effort needs sustained support. We cannot wait for a crisis to spur political interest. It is incumbent that voters let their elected officials know that promoting religious freedom for all matters.

In this effort we must refrain from pulling domestic partisan debates about religious liberty into the international effort. We must zealously guard the international work, which is often life and death, from our increasingly abrasive debates at home. Indeed, we must sort through challenging domestic issues that reflect our diverse society. But these are generally higher-level discussions about the finer points of individual liberties balanced against competing civil rights. I pray for the day Pakistan debates what bakers should make instead of terrorist attacks against minorities and suicide bombings of churches and death sentences for the so-called crime of blasphemy. Guarding the distinction between domestic and international religious freedom can protect and regenerate bipartisan support.


Next, we must modernize our approach. Religious persecution may be as old as human history, but modern tools of oppression require new thinking. While we continue to fully use the tools created in the twentieth century, it is essential we develop new approaches for the twenty-first century. The perpetrators of religious persecution do not stand still. Neither should we.

Many have grown frustrated with the inability or unwillingness of administrations to levy religious freedom sanctions on governments. In contrast, the rapidity of global sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine shows what’s possible with political will. In the same way, we need to levy penalties for religious persecution. If we take our values seriously, then consequences must follow when abuses occur. Otherwise, we undermine our credibility and destroy deterrence. Certainly some persecutors may price sanctions into their policy calculations, but other nations will take note. China watchers are certain Beijing is paying close attention to how the West responded to Russia’s invasion. Consistently backing up our concerns with actions can create deterrence for would-be abusers. Nothing less than action will convince persecutors; rhetoric alone will not work. If we say religious freedom matters, then it needs to matter.

Accordingly, we need new tools to ensure persecutors feel consequences for their misdeeds. To borrow from the old AT&T jingle, we must devise innovative ways to “reach out and thump someone” with sanctions or other penalties. The Global Magnitsky Act has been a breakthrough in this regard, giving the United States a scalpel to target individual foreign officials to freeze their bank accounts. Even when sanctions don’t touch officials directly, the second and third-tier impacts ricochet through financial systems, hurting their cronies and supporters. What new tools can we create to extend our reach further?

For instance, visas to the United States are an underutilized tool. It’s shameful that the State Department has only once denied a visa to a foreign official for religious freedom abuses. In 2005 Narendra Modi was denied a personal visa when he was chief minister of Gujarat for his role in the violence against Muslims. Undoubtedly, others have deserved such treatment. And we can look beyond government officials, limiting visits to the United States for extremists outside of official circles. Devising ways to identify hatemongers and deny them visas to the United States, and coordinating with allies in Canada and Europe, could provide consequences they otherwise would not experience at home. In our globalized world, it would prevent them from raising funds in the West or spreading their noxious ideas in our countries.

In addition, it is time to rethink how the United States supports religious freedom advocacy through grants. State Department and USAID bureaucracies need a more responsive process matching the speed of current events. Ironically, despite being intended to support activists, frontline advocacy groups often struggle to receive funds, as they cannot meet the burdensome requirements for large U.S. government grants. Setting up a more entrepreneurial outside funding entity, similar to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), could help ensure resources get to the right places quickly, efficiently, and without a potential veto from other State Department vested interests. Altering USCIRF’s mandate to become a NED-like granting body could quickly meet this need.


Finally, we must speak out. We must shine a light. We must press for change when individuals face persecution because of their religion or belief. The United States should forthrightly voice concerns to friend and foe alike. Of course, engagements will look different between allies and adversaries, but steadfast and consistent religious freedom advocacy should be a guiding star in these turbulent times. It will win the admiration of millions of persecuted individuals, while also promoting a more peaceful and stable world.

In other words, holistically promoting religious freedom abroad and defending the persecuted reflects the best of American values and supports vital American interests. Too often, however, other priorities distract policymakers, resulting in religious freedom’s dropping down the priority list. The tyranny of the urgent can prevent government officials from responding to actual tyranny. Consequently, our advocacy must also press American officials to ensure religious freedom’s prominence in U.S. foreign relations.

Certainly, the United States cannot and should not do this alone. There is a limit to U.S. power and influence. Joint advocacy is a force multiplier, sharing resource burdens and combining political capital. Collective advocacy highlighting abusive governments from nations crossing religious, political, and geographical differences can be uniquely powerful. Likewise, civil society organizations and religious groups advocating for religious freedom for all can make a difference. While natural and good to advocate for one’s own community, the most stable future for persecuted co-religionists occurs when everyone can enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief.

An Essential Reset

When IRFA’s founding fathers and mothers designed the legislation, they could not foresee the world we live in today. We have certainly learned lessons, but they need to be applied. Congress has only rarely updated the Act. More changes are required to ensure the diplomatic and financial investment mandated by IRFA meets its full potential and helps individuals peacefully practice the religion or belief of their choice.

Regenerate, innovate, and advocate should be priorities going forward as we consider the past 25 years of work to promote religious freedom internationally. Americans should be proud of this unprecedented commitment, which sets us apart from most other nations and has saved lives and improved conditions. But we cannot rely on aging systems to continue to meet the twenty-first-century challenge of persecution. They will not reform or refit by themselves. And foundationally, we must continually recommit to promoting this right for all and ensuring the United States backs up its words with deeds.

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