By Matias Perttula
12/16/20 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – This week, the Electoral College confirmed Joe Biden as the official winner of the 2020 presidential race. As his administration takes shape and begins creating policy initiatives, it is vitally important that the Trump administration’s progress on international religious freedom continues to be advanced under Biden.
Though it is a core human right, religious freedom is too often overlooked. In government, it has remained an apolitical and unifying bipartisan issue. International religious freedom is not a question of who is right theologically, but a question of providing access to the fundamental right to practice your faith and live according to your conscience.
Under the leadership of Sam Brownback, the Ambassador At-Large for International Religious Freedom, the Trump administration brought enormous momentum to the international religious freedom movement. Below are just a few examples of this momentum.
First, the pressure has produced tangible results in countries all around the world. In Sudan, several archaic laws like the death penalty for apostasy (leaving Islam) were abolished. Also, bans on alcohol consumption that targeted non-Muslims were repealed. These advancements and many others in Sudan were advocated for by the NGO and civil society communities, as well as various relevant U.S. government agencies.
Needless to say, these shifts in Sudan will have long term positive implications beyond Sudanese borders in the region as whole. Sudan was also recently removed from the terrorist watch list and hosted its first international religious freedom roundtable, part of a global movement committed to promoting dialogue between faith groups and eradicating persecution and religious discrimination.
Second, the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom started by the U.S. Department of State helped to bring the issue of religious intolerance to the forefront of international relations and international policy making. The U.S. led the way in ensuring that the world can no longer ignore the realities of religious intolerance.
Some governments, like Hungary’s, have taken a strong stance against persecution and worked to deliver aid directly to persecuted communities. This aid has helped break cycles of poverty embedded in decades of systemic job discrimination, economic disenfranchisement, lack of access to education, and other forms of persecution. It is vitally important that efforts like these continue to bring aid to persecuted communities.
Third, the newly formed International Religious Freedom Alliance is another excellent multilateral institution brought about by the Trump administration. While the Alliance is still finding its footing in the international realm, it has become an excellent place to plan multinational action and advance issues such as the need for more humanitarian aid and the protection of religious sites. Humanitarian aid to persecuted religious communities both highlights the problem of persecution and also directly alleviates the challenges that they face.
Fourth, the United States has implemented various sanction authorities through legal frameworks like the Global Magnitsky Act to counter religious freedom violators around the world. Similar legal frameworks are being built in Australia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The United States is uniquely positioned to lead on this effort and inspire further action from allies and other multilateral institutions. Targeted sanctions provide an excellent tool for countering violators of religious freedom by encouraging behavior change and serving as a deterrent against future atrocities.
The U.S. must lead on this issue, but not by itself. It must build on the alliance that currently exists and bring more governments into the coalition. It must continue driving this core human right to the forefront. The U.S. should avoid mission drift by staying focused on serving religious minorities, advocating on their behalf. and holding governments that persecute accountable for their actions. The U.S. should continue to rally others to this cause and stay focused on the mission of religious freedom as defined by the IRF Act of 1998.
Much has been accomplished, but many challenges await the Biden administration as it assumes the presidency in January.
Matias Perttula serves as the Advocacy Director for International Christian Concern where he leads the government relations efforts to mobilize the US government to address issues of persecution in countries where religious minorities are oppressed and the freedom of religion is in decline.