U.S. State Department’s First Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom

In July 2018, the U.S. State Department held the first ever Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom.[1] At the event’s conclusion, the State Department issued various documents that are discussed below.

The Potomac Declaration [2]

After quoting Article 18 regarding religious freedom of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, the Potomac Declaration asserted, “This right is under attack all around the world. Almost 80 percent of the global population reportedly experience severe limitations on this right. Persecution, repression, and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, or non-belief are a daily reality for too many. It is time to address these challenges directly.” Therefore, the Chairman of the Ministerial (Secretary Pompeo) declared: the following:

  • “Every person everywhere has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Every person has the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and enjoys the freedom to change faith.
  • Religious freedom is universal and inalienable, and states must respect and protect this human right.
  • A person’s conscience is inviolable. The right to freedom of conscience, as set out in international human rights instruments, lies at the heart of religious freedom.
  • Persons are equal based on their shared humanity. There should be no discrimination on account of a person’s religion or belief. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. Citizenship or the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms should not depend on religious identification or heritage.
  • Coercion aimed at forcing a person to adopt a certain religion is inconsistent with and a violation of the right to religious freedom. The threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adopt different beliefs, to recant their faith, or to reveal their faith is entirely at odds with freedom of religion.
  • Religious freedom applies to all individuals as right-holders. Believers can exercise this right alone or in community with others, and in public or private. While religions do not have human rights themselves, religious communities and their institutions benefit through the human rights enjoyed by their individual members.
  • Persons who belong to faith communities and non-believers alike have the right to participate freely in the public discourse of their respective societies. A state’s establishment of an official religion or traditional faith should not impair religious freedom or foster discrimination towards adherents of other religions or non-believers.
  • The active enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief encompasses many manifestations and a broad range of practices. These can include worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Parents and legal guardians have the liberty to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
  • Religion plays an important role in humanity’s common history and in societies today. The cultural heritage sites and objects important for past, present, and future religious practices should be preserved and treated with respect.”

The Potomac Plan of Action [3]

The lengthier Plan of Action also was issued by the Chairman of the Ministerial. It states as follows:

Defending the Human Right of Freedom of Religion or Belief

States should increase collective advocacy and coordination to promote and protect religious freedom and to counter the persecution of individuals because of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Condemn strongly acts of discrimination and violence in the name of or against a particular religion or lack thereof and press for immediate accountability for those responsible for such violence, including state and non-state actors.
  • Protect members of religious communities, dissenting members, and non-believers from threats to their freedom, safety, livelihood, and security on account of their beliefs.
  • Respect the liberty of parents to provide their children religious and moral education in conformity with their own conscience and convictions and to ensure members of religious minority communities and non-believers are not forcibly indoctrinated into other faiths.
  • Protect the ability of religious adherents, institutions, and organizations to produce in quantities they desire religious publications and materials, as well as to import and disseminate such materials.
  • Increase international understanding of how suppression of religious freedom can contribute to violent extremism, sectarianism, conflict, insecurity, and instability.
  • Ensure false accusations of “extremism” are not used as a pretext to suppress the freedom of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice their faith, or otherwise limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
  • Eliminate restrictions unduly limiting the ability of believers and non-believers to manifest their faith or beliefs in observance and practice, either alone or in community with others, through peaceful assembly, worship, observance, prayer, practice, teaching, and other activities.
  • Speak out bilaterally, as well as through multilateral fora, against violations or abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Confronting Legal Limitations

States should promote religious freedom and bring their laws and policies into line with international human rights norms regarding freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Protect freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief and ensure individuals can freely change beliefs, or not believe, without penalty or fear of violence, and encourage the repeal of provisions penalizing or discriminating against individuals for leaving or changing their religion or belief.
  • Encourage any state-managed registration systems for official recognition of religious communities be optional (rather than mandatory) and not unduly burdensome, so as to help facilitate the free and legal practice of religion for communities of believers.
  • Allow religious communities to establish freely accessible places of worship or assembly in public or private, to organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structures, to train their religious personnel and community members, and to select, appoint, and replace their personnel in accordance with their beliefs without government interference.
  • Repeal anti-blasphemy laws, which are inherently subjective, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedoms of religion, belief, and expression and leads to other human rights violations or abuses.
  • Recognize that respect for religious freedom can afford space to religious actors to engage in constructive efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, terrorism and conflict, and to collaborate with non-religious actors on the same.
  • Encourage the development of conscientious objection laws and policies to accommodate the religious beliefs of military age persons and provide alternatives to military service.

Advocating for Equal Rights and Protections for All, Including Members of Religious Minorities

States should promote the human rights of members of religious minorities, dissenting members from the majority faith, and non-believers, including freedom of religion or belief. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Treat all persons equally under the law – regardless of an individual’s religion, beliefs or religious affiliation, or lack thereof – and ensure law enforcement officials take measures to protect all persons, including members of religious minorities, from harm or discriminatory acts on account of their faith or beliefs.
  • Prevent discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in access to justice, employment, education and housing, in personal status and family laws, and in access to opportunities for expression in public forums.
  • Ensure that all people, including religious minority community members, are free from forced conversions, and are entitled to and receive equal protection under the law without discrimination.
  • Respond quickly to physical assaults on persons and the destruction or vandalizing of holy sites or property based on religion or belief, and hold those responsible accountable.
  • Encourage teaching about the value of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration, and promote a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.
  • Foster religious freedom and pluralism by promoting the ability of members of all religious communities, including migrant workers, to practice their religion, and to contribute openly and on an equal footing to society.
  • Encourage authorities to denounce and condemn public discrimination and crimes targeting individuals on account of their religion or belief or lack thereof.

Responding to Genocide and other Mass Atrocities

States should use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other necessary means to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including when based on religious convictions. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Take immediate action to protect their populations from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing.
  • Condemn messages or narratives that promote violence against the holders of certain religious or other beliefs or that foster intra- and inter-religious tensions, whether by government officials or non-state actors.
  • Take steps to support investigative efforts and work to preserve evidence and document suspected crimes when reports of atrocities arise, including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing.
  • Hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, mass atrocities, and ethnic cleansing and related crimes, and employ mechanisms to promote accountability, justice, and reconciliation.
  • Consider the needs of survivors and families of survivors of atrocities and provide them assistance and resources to help rebuild and heal traumatized communities and individuals in post-conflict areas.
  • Work with willing victims and survivors of mass atrocities to develop and disseminate communications and educational efforts about their experiences, recovery and resilience.

Preserving Cultural Heritage

States should increase efforts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, including that of threatened minority religious communities, particularly in conflict zones, and to preserve cultural heritage sites, even those of communities whose members have dwindled or emigrated to other countries. In that spirit, states should work to:

  • Adopt and implement policies that introduce or improve inventory lists of cultural sites and objects that promote respect for and protect heritage, including places of worship and religious sites, shrines, and cemeteries, and that take appropriate protective measures where such sites are vulnerable to vandalism or destruction by state or non-state actors.
  • Safeguard heritage sites, and help other governments do so, by offering technical assistance and professional training to relevant officials, as well as provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger.
  • Assist impacted communities to secure, protect, repair and/or stabilize their cultural heritage sites.
  • Encourage participation by the local population in the preservation of their cultural heritage, and engage members of religious communities and others, including their leadership, with training on ways to protect their cultural heritage from damage and/or looting.
  • Assist with efforts to restore cultural heritage sites of significance to multiple communities in a conflict zone so as to foster intra- and inter-faith relations and rebuild trust.
  • Raise public awareness, particularly among youth, of the significance and history of cultural heritage, by working with and through religious actors and other community leaders.

Strengthening the Response

States should take actions to respond to threats to religious freedom that continue to proliferate around the world. In that spirit, states should consider endorsing the Potomac Declaration and work to:

  • Extend financial support to assist persons persecuted for their religious freedom advocacy, affiliation or practice, or for being a non-believer and support the capacity-building work of religious freedom advocacy organizations, and encourage private foundations to increase funding to such causes.
  • Strengthen rule-of-law, fair trial guarantees, and the institutional capacity to protect religious freedom and other human rights.
  • Provide additional diplomatic resources through the creation of special ambassadorial positions or focal points in foreign ministries, and support collective action through such groupings as the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief and the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
  • Train and equip diplomats in the meaning and value of religious freedom and how to advance it.
  • Recommit annually to promoting religious freedom for all, by establishing August 3, the first day of ISIS’s Sinjar massacre targeting Yezidis, as a nationally or internationally recognized day of remembrance of survivors of religious persecution.
  • Allow and support civil society organizations and religious actors in their efforts to advocate for, and organize on behalf of, religious freedom, pluralism, peace and tolerance and related values.
  • Facilitate the creation of domestic forums, or utilize existing groups, where religious groups, faith-based organizations and civil society can meet to discuss concerns about religious freedom at home and abroad, as well as through bodies at the regional level.
  • Encourage government ministries and officials to engage with and listen to the domestic forums regularly, and implement relevant suggestions when possible.
  • Encourage national economic investment projects that foster collaboration and trust building across different communities and demonstrate the economic, societal and individual benefits of respect for religious freedom and pluralism.
  • Train and support religious community actors, including religious actors, to build resilience to and prevent violent extremism and terrorism, which negatively affect religious freedom, by disseminating alternative messages, engaging at-risk community members, and implementing intra- and inter-faith partnerships.

International Religious Freedom Fund [4]

With the U.S. providing coverage for all personnel, administrative and overhead expenses, all of the funds contributed by others would fund the following program activities:

  • Supporting initiatives that address the barriers to freedom of religion or belief. This encompasses activities such as advocacy initiatives, awareness campaigns, public messaging, community inclusion efforts, conflict prevention
  • Providing assistance to those facing discrimination on the basis of religion or belief for individual needs including, assistance to address threats of violence; medical needs resulting from violent assault; and replacement of equipment damaged or confiscated as a result of harassment.

Other Actions of the Ministerial [5]

The Ministerial also issued statements about Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups; Iran; Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious freedom Repression; China; Burma; and Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws.

According to the Secretary of State before its convening, this Ministerial was to “reaffirm our commitment to religious freedom as a universal human right. This ministerial . . . . . . Religious freedom is indeed a universal human right that I will fight for. [The Ministerial] will not just be a discussion group. It will be about action. We look forward to identifying concrete ways to push back against persecution and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.”

At the conclusion of this Ministerial, the Secretary of State emphasized that “President Trump has directed his administration to advance and defend the rights of religious freedom at home and abroad, because religious freedom is a universal God-given right to which all people are entitled. It is also an essential building block for all free societies. Ensuring religious freedom around the world is a key priority of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.”

After describing what happened at the Ministerial, Secretary Pompeo complimented Vice President Pence’s announcement of the U.S. Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response, and the U.S. International Religious Freedom Fund. Pompeo also announced that the Department was creating a ten-day International Victor Leadership Program for those “working on the frontiers of religious freedom issues” around the world and a three-day workshop Boldline “to support and scale innovative public-private partnerships that promote and defend religious freedom around the world.” Also announced was the then upcoming Potomac Declaration and the Potomac Plan of Action for religious freedom.

Conclusion

 Although as a member of a Presbyterian Church I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I approached the investigation of this Ministerial with some skepticism and fear that it was a device to promulgate what I would regard as a right-wing approach to religion and Christianity.

However, the above account of the work of the first Ministerial does not support such skepticism.Nor does the latest State Department annual report on international religious freedom insofar as it cites to the relevant international standards on the subject. Whether or not its gathered “evidence” or analysis of same meets the same standard is another issue for another day. [6]

Later this month the State Department will hold its second such Ministerial [7] for like-minded governments that have a demonstrated record of advancing religious freedom and are committed to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or governments that have taken significant and meaningful steps to do so; and survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs. This Ministerial will have the following agenda:

  • Discuss opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally, including how such freedom, international development and humanitarian aid can work together.
  • Discuss best practices for religious freedom advocacy; limitations in forming, registering and recognizing religious communities; challenges facing religious minorities; combatting the rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic behavior; countering violent extremism; religious freedom and national security; religious freedom and economic development; cultural heritage protection for religious sites; religious minorities and humanitarian crises; international development aid and religious freedom; and mobilizing faith leaders around peace and development goals.
  • Identify global challenges to religious freedom; develop innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and share new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Invitations will be extended to

This blog will examine this second Ministerial’s work to see if there is any reason to change a favorable opinion about its work. As always, this blog invites reasoned pro and con comments, especially for topics or perspectives that were overlooked.

=========================================

[1] According to the State Department’s Diplomatic Dictionary, a “ministerial” is a “ formally arranged meeting of ministers of various states, such as the Defense or Foreign Ministers of the member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

[2] State Dep’t, Potomac Declaration (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, Potomac Plan of Action (July 24, 2018).

[3] State Dep’t, International Religious Freedom Fund: Fact Sheet (July 27, 2018).

[4] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Religious Freedom Repression by Non-State Actors, including Terrorist Groups (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Statement on Iran (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Counterterrorism as a False Pretext for Religious Freedom Repression (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on China (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Burma (July 26, 2018); State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious freedom Statement on Blasphemy/Apostasy Laws (July 26, 2018).

[5] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019).

[6] State Department’s Latest Report on International Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (June 25, 2019)

[7] State Dep’t, Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, 16-18 July 2019 (June 21, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019).

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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