Progress from the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom

08/22/2019 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – A month filled with newsworthy world events and important last-minute legislative wheeling and dealing, July in Washington, D.C. also hosted the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. This event, hosted by the Department of State, calls leaders from around the world together to discuss the importance of advancing international religious freedom and consider various strategies for achieving that goal.

This year’s Ministerial saw over fifty governments and one thousand members of NGOs and various faith organizations in attendance over the three-day long event and at a plethora of side events scheduled to coincide with the Ministerial.

The necessary problem, though, of any such discussion is to translate the talk into real progress. Despite the clear consensus of the international community on the importance of religious freedom—made clear not only through events like the Ministerial but also in commonly accepted documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and others—a host of geopolitical dynamics work to resist the advancement of religious freedom in hard policy and in practical everyday enforcement.

The problem of religious persecution is a broad one that demands broad reforms, but even the broadest of reforms are often achieved through progress on smaller, specific issues. And while participants at the Ministerial did not shy away from addressing the broad topics, they also worked to highlight and address specific topics such as the way that anti-blasphemy laws are used to oppress religious dissention around the world and the egregious abuses taking place in China, Iran, and Myanmar.

All told, fifty-one countries signed statements of concern about a variety of issues ranging from countries with concerning track records in the area of religious freedom to the concerning use of technology to suppress religious freedom rather than further it to the need to protect places of worship from the desecrations of terrorist violence.

Also discussed at the Ministerial were the sanctioning and visa restriction tools available to the Department of State and the Department of the Treasury. These tools allow State to prevent violators of religious freedom from entering the United States themselves or from sending their families. In certain cases, Treasury can even freeze their US-held assets. Given the size of the US banking system and the popularity of the United States as a place for the children of the wealthy to get an education, these sanctioning authorities give State the ability to send a powerful message to international human rights violators.

The Department of State relies heavily on the NGO community to submit candidates for potential sanctioning, an effort in which the NGO community is becoming increasingly involved. International Christian Concern worked with the Department of State to put on an educational workshop on the topic, bringing in officials from the Department of State to discuss the nuts and bolts of submitting these sanctions requests.

The 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom was a rousing political success in that it brought the topic of international religious freedom to the forefront of discussion in Washington, D.C., but it remains to be seen whether the leaders that gathered so eagerly to discuss the topic actually choose to do anything about it when they go back home. We must not let the energy and passion of the Ministerial dwindle but rather should continue to our work to ensure the eventual freedom of the oppressed all around the world.


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