Choir members sing at the In Defense of Christians Ecumenical Prayer Service July 15, 2019, in Washington. The prayer service opened the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, taking place July 16-18 and convening government officials, representatives of international organizations, faith leaders, rights advocates and members of civil society organizations from around the world to discuss challenges to religious freedom. CNS photo/Sydney Clark

Report gives snapshot of efforts to protect religious freedom around globe

By  Elizabeth Bachmann, Catholic News Service
  • July 17, 2019

WASHINGTON -- In conjunction with the U.S. State Department's Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the Religious Freedom Institute presented a side event July 15 to discuss current international religious freedom policy.

Updated 2019-07-17:
Updated with new material after 11th paragraph; added "Deacon" to priest's title in second paragraph.

Jeremy Barker, the Religious Freedom Institute's senior program officer, and Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, a Ukrainian Catholic priest from Toronto who is a senior fellow at the institute, headed a team to research and compile a landmark report illustrating the kinds of programs, legislation, advocacy and methods countries are employing to advance religious freedom.

In response to the influx of religious freedom policy from 2013 to 2016, this research serves as a snapshot of what Western democracies are currently doing on the subject and how well these strategies are working.

Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, said the institute found diplomats "woefully ill equipped" to discuss and advance religious freedom policy. Thus, one of the Religious Freedom Institute's priorities is to design training modules for diplomats and legislators that teach them to present the importance of religious freedom and advance religious freedom policy in hostile societies.

The institute also is developing in-country training programs to tailored to help missions abroad with the specific problems they face, and has adopted a three-pronged methodology to apply the information gathered in the landmark report.

"There is a description around this movement to advance religious freedom as somewhat of a three-legged stool of the actions of governments and foreign ministries, legislators and civil society," Barker said. "Really what we hope this report will do is we hope it will be a resource to help catalyze action and really bring about coordinated global action among these different aspects of this three-legged stool."

Still, speakers recognized that the most effective avenue to activate change is not governmental, but local. The Religious Freedom Institute designs action teams to work at community levels, drumming up grassroots energy among faith actors and civil actors that will, hopefully, seep into governmental processes over time.

Another challenge the Institute faces in cultivating support is religious apathy. To engage secular societies as well as religious societies, keynote speaker Jan Figel, a European Union special envoy for promotion of freedom of religion, also looked at religious freedom through the lens of human dignity and practicality.

"It is important to speak about human dignity if we want to see religious freedom for all. ... The core of justice for all is respect for core, universal human rights for all. And human dignity is a foundational principle for all human rights," Figel said. "If there is a point of convergence between religious humanists and secular humanists, it is human dignity as a base of each person's undeniable and inalienable rights."

If this appeal to common humanity still fails to garner empathy and support, Farr recommended explaining the secular and strategic benefits of religious freedom policy. The landmark report revealed a direct correlation between religious freedom and social harmony, economic growth, robust civil society and political stability. Further, and most importantly according to Farr, religious freedom "undermines religion related violence and religion related terrorism."

Farr closed the session with an appeal. He called countries to use religious freedom as a weapon of peace to convince intolerant societies that accepting and prioritizing human dignity can save them from the violence with which they are destroying themselves.

After speaking about general religious freedom policy, the Religious Freedom Institute presented a panel focused specifically on declarations from around the world that promote human dignity and religious freedom.

This discussion of global declarations was the first of its kind. Keynote speaker Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, president of America's first Muslim liberal arts college, Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, led off the discussion by emphasizing the importance of this kind of global and inclusive discussion.

"The thing that we need more than anything else ... is a commitment to learning. Ignorance is the enemy. ... We owe it to ourselves to know about the great world religions," Yusuf said. "It behooves us to understand some basic things about these religions."

In the spirit of that sentiment, panelists then discussed seven declarations from around the world, that sought to define, defend, and propagate religious freedom through a range of activities, including education, global action, and local action.

The declarations discussed included A Common Word; The Beirut Declaration on "Faith for Rights"; The Potomac Declaration; The Oslo Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief; The Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere; The American Charter; and Marrakesh Declaration.

Each of these declarations strives to create societies that enshrine human dignity and religious freedom as essential basic rights.

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