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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

What Comes Next for the International Religious Freedom Movement?

After the latest ministerial in Prague, the growing coalition of nations should focus on enforcing consequences for perpetrators.

The historic city of Prague recently hosted diplomats, civil society activists and religious leaders from 60 countries around the shared goal of global religious freedom. Convened by the Czech government, it was the fifth gathering since the United States launched the ministerial process in 2018. As persecution continues worldwide, victimizing individuals from all faiths and none, the timing was right to gather those committed to promoting freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief for all.

The International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance Ministerial Conference ran from November 28-30. Eighteen months since the last ministerial in London, the Prague meeting invited the countries belonging to the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, alongside civil society participants. Uzra Zeya, the U.S. under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, and Rashad Hussain, the ambassador at large for international religious freedom, led the U.S. delegation. While smaller than the Washington or London ministerial meetings, the more intimate gathering allowed for in-depth conversations.

The Ministerial Agenda

The Czech organizers set the conference theme as “Freedom of Religion under Authoritarian Regimes,” emphasizing the importance of defending freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the face of dictatorial oppression. Based on the experience of Chechia under Communism, the country was a fitting host to examine religious persecution in places like China, Belarus, Myanmar, Russia and elsewhere. But that wasn’t the only issue discussed, and other sessions grappled with connected or adjacent topics to religious freedom. For instance, one session focused on the interconnectedness of gender rights and FoRB, while another examined ways to foster private donor support for FoRB advocacy. The U.S. Embassy in Prague hosted a well-attended side event on heritage destruction targeting religious groups in China, Iraq and Ukraine, which Under Secretary Zeya keynoted and I moderated. Persecution through digital surveillance was also a point of discussion. In addition, looking to the future, for the first time, a ministerial included a youth track and a sports track. Youth delegates came from Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Israel, Myanmar, Vietnam and the United States. Regarding sport, professional soccer players (or footballers) with Football for Peace spoke about the power of soccer to foster interfaith understanding and played an exhibition match. Both added new dimensions to the discussion.

A Search for Consistency

Yet, as encouraging as the Prague meeting was, problems remain — and global oppression continues. For these events to have impact and value, they must expand the ability of likeminded partners to counter religious persecution effectively. As someone who was deeply involved in the two State Department ministerial meetings and has advised on the subsequent events, supporters should consider how best to steward the movement to ensure positive and sustainable progress on the ground. Where to next, literally and figuratively? Future efforts should focus on consistency, expanding coalitions, highlighting abuses and enforcing consequences. Encouraging full respect for freedom of religion or belief with friend and foe is the true hallmark of consistency. The European Union speaks of “internal/external cohesion,” where members strive to respect human rights at home while advocating for them abroad. In the same way, countries advocating for international religious freedom must also protect the right domestically. Why does internal/external cohesion matter? Because steadfastly defending rights at home provides credibility and demonstrates genuine commitment, two crucial steps toward effective international advocacy. In addition, the movement would benefit from a consistent schedule of future ministerial events. Right now, no country is offering to host the next meeting. These events are massive undertakings, and the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs is owed many thanks for hosting. Because ministerials are a heavy lift, meeting every 18 months or two years would provide a longer runway, especially for governments with limited resources. To demonstrate the global nature of religious freedom, future hosts would ideally come from predominately non-Christian societies or different regions such as Asia or South America. Nations such as Albania, Japan or Brazil could be approached, or a European nation like Lithuania or Norway that would bring political diversity.

Expanding the IRFBA Coalition

The field of religious freedom advocates has grown. The immensity of religious persecution is too complex for any one nation or organization to confront alone, so the IRFBA coalition is a revolutionary development for the movement. Governments working across political, geographic and regional lines can move the needle in ways bilateral advocacy cannot. The same applies to diverse civil society alliances spanning the secular and the sacred, like the International Religious Freedom Roundtable and IRF NGO Summit in the United States and the U.K. FoRB Forum. These networks focus on the right for all, not just a single community. But coalition work cannot be limited to representatives of victims and must expand left and right. USIP recently hosted a conference to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which established religious freedom as a bipartisan foreign policy priority for the United States. As my colleague Peter Mandeville and I wrote for a USIP Special Report, building “coalitions of the vulnerable … can avoid partisan polarization of the issue and create unlikely alliances around human dignity … [T]hose persecuted for their religious beliefs, marginalized ethnic minorities, women and victims of discrimination against LGBTQ communities often find themselves experiencing a similar plight and shared threats to their basic human dignity.” Expanding the coalition and fostering bridge-building could bring “greater impact through mutual support where gains for one group can help other victimized communities.”

Enforcing Consequences as a Path Forward

Regarding highlighting abuses, governments must be steadfast and clear. Naming and shaming is a tried and true approach that sends an unmistakable message of reprobation from the family of nations. For instance, the Czech government’s decision to emphasize Chinese Communist Party (CCP) repression against multiple faith communities at the Prague ministerial demonstrated CCP misdeeds will not be ignored. Often, there is a hesitancy to issue specific condemnations against China or other influential countries. Generic or thematic statements are of questionable value, asking for minimal political commitment from governments, and are therefore rarely remembered. Specific problems require specific statements. Combined with highlighting abuses, consequences should be enforced. If the world believes religious freedom matters, then it should influence how governments conduct international relations. When nations proclaim the importance of human rights, relationships with persecuting countries cannot remain the same. Concrete action is needed to change the incentive structures. Enforcing consequences can alter the calculation of abusers if international penalties outweigh the domestic returns. Watching the rapidity of sanctions against Russia when political will exists has been astounding. However, too often, religious persecution ranks low on the priority list, and perpetrators have little fear of being held accountable. Expanding Magnitsky-like laws is a start, as they have shown what is possible through pinpointed sanctions. And while they may not deter every malign actor, others will notice the cost escalation and may hesitate to strike. In the same way, as our USIP report recommended, the State Department should end its overuse of waivers for Country of Particular Concern designations. Doing so would revitalize the tool and make it a powerful instrument that hits governments for their abuses. Positive programs can also create momentum for reform, such as education initiatives with youth around interfaith understanding, promoting rights through social media, leveraging cultural heritage to encourage tolerance, or others identified in our USIP report. In conclusion, snowy Prague was a beautiful and historic setting in which to discuss religious freedom. Over four hundred years ago, disagreements in Prague over religious liberty led to the start of the Thirty Years War in 1618, a devastating conflict mixing religion, ethnicity and power politics. From the carnage, however, foundational precepts of modern international law emerged that expanded notions of religious freedom. Seventeenth century Prague proved a turning point in world history. After the recent meeting in Prague, will the religious freedom conference be remembered as another turning point in the battle against 21st century religious persecution? Time will tell. Knox Thames is a Senior Visiting Expert at the United States Institute of Peace.

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