Religion Under Attack More Than Ever as International Religious Freedom Act Turns 20

November 11, 2018 Updated: November 12, 2018

WASHINGTON—Twenty years after the International Religious Freedom Act was passed, religious freedom is under fire more than ever.

Six countries were added in 2017 to the State Department’s list of nations of particular concern for violating religious freedoms; the 2016 report had 10 listed. In 2000, when the first report was published after the International Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1998, there were just three countries cited.

“It’s an interesting confluence where we are right now, where we had a burst of religious freedom after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall, after the fall of communism. It was like freedom was really on the move,” said Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. “And then, kind of as a backlash to that, a number of countries decided, ‘We’ve got a little too much freedom here.’

“But I think we’re getting enough governments to experience the bad aspects of religious persecution of mob violence, that I’m hearing from a number of governments that they don’t like that.”

Tell that to Bob Fu, the head of the nonprofit China Aid, which exposes the persecution of Chinese Christians and human-rights lawyers in China. He would tell you that things have only gotten worse in his home country.

“The persecution against religious minorities in China has reached the worst level since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of churches [are] being shut down. Not only the house churches, the independent house churches, but government-sanctioned house churches.”

Sam Naeem, a Rohingya Muslim advocate from Myanmar, also known as Burma, said he would like to see the United States do more about the Muslim Rohingya who are facing persecution in Burma, which has forced almost 1 million to flee to Bangladesh. The exodus has more than doubled the number of Rohingya in the country since August 2017.

“The United States is the only country that the Burmese government will really listen [to] or care about,” he said. “If the United States government has the will or determination to solve this problem, they will find ways.”

The International Religious Freedom Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, put religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy. It created the post of ambassador at large for international religious freedom in the State Department and a special adviser on international religious freedom within the National Security Council, as well as authorized the United States to act in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries.

While it may be tempting to conclude that the measure has largely failed in its mandate to advance liberties it sought to protect, its successes must be looked at in a wider context, said John Hanford, one of the writers of the act. He pointed to Vietnam, where the government had been rounding up people of faith and forcing them to renounce their beliefs until about 2005, due in part to the United States designating it as a country of particular concern.

“They did a U-turn,” he said. “They banned forced renunciations, they released all the religious prisoners … this was the greatest turnaround in the modern history of the country.”

William Inboden, the director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas, said it’s not about how little the act has done in 20 years, but how much worse things would be if it hadn’t been enacted.

“I think things would have been even worse [than they are now],” he said.

What worries Inboden more is the eroding support for religious freedom at home. “The IRFA act and the ambassador position are only going to be as effective as the American people’s support for them is.”

Anna Su, the author of “Exporting Freedom,” agrees. She said that religious freedom will only flourish when it is supported by people of faith and not of faith alike. What is encouraging to her is that once the United States passed the act, other countries, such as her home country Canada, started to pass similar legislation.

Hanford said it’s too early to say how the Trump administration is doing on religious freedom, but he’s hopeful that it will carry the torch for religious freedom far and wide, starting with a religious ministerial the State Department held this summer.

“I think President Trump cares about this. He certainly has a lot of people around him who makes sure he cares about it,” he said, naming Brownback and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“I’ve got great hopes that the momentum, if anything, will increase.”

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