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

On July 16-18, 2019, the U.S. State Department hosted its Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The opening event was held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to emphasize the “importance of promoting religious freedom and protecting religious minorities.” The closing event, also in Washington, D.C. was at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and co-hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.[1]

First Day Activities[2]

After welcoming remarks by Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, the participants discussed the opportunities and challenges for promoting and defending religious freedom globally. Through a series of plenary sessions, they discussed the necessary building blocks and emerging trends in advancing religious freedom, as well as how religious freedom, international development, and humanitarian aid can work together to advance mutual interests.

Second Day Activities[3]

 There were three separate discussions led by topical experts, civil society actors, religious leaders, academics and working-level government officials on topics such as 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.

At the end of the second day, the White House held a brief reception for some of the Ministerial attendees. One was Cuban Pastor Mario Felix Lieonart, who said, “Pastor, Ramón Rigal, and his wife are imprisoned in Cuba.  Please pray for them and help the people in Cuba. Two other Cuban pastors who were invited for the Ministerial “are not here because the government in Cuba would not give them permission to come. They are Moisés de Prada, president of the Assemblies of God, and Álida León, president of the new Evangelical League of Cuba, which said, “The intention to attend [the Ministerial] was made public, it was a proof of transparency and truth, we have nothing institutionally to hide.” Lieonart added, I am here because I am a refugee in United States.  Thank you for your hospitality for me.” In response to a question from President Trump, Rev. Lieonart said, “Raúl Castro is continuing in power because he is the First Secretary of the Communist Party.  And the new President is not really Cuba’s leader. Castro is the real leader.”

Third Day Activities[4]

Senior government and international organization representatives focused on: identifying global challenges to religious freedom; developing innovative responses to persecution on the basis of religion; and sharing new commitments to protect religious freedom for all. Survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religion or beliefs shared their stories. Government delegations were encouraged to announce new actions and commitments they will take to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief.

There also were the Keynote Address by Secretary Pompeo, an Address by Vice President Mike Pence and Closing Comments by Ambassador Brownback. The highlights of those speeches follow.

Secretary Pompeo’s Keynote Address

The attendance aat this Ministerial “proves that religious freedom matters to literally billions of people all around the world. Look around you. Religious freedom isn’t just a Christian concern, a Jewish concern, a Muslim concern, a Buddhist concern, a Hindu concern, or a humanist concern. It’s all of our concern; it is everyone’s concern.”

“Here in the United States, our Declaration of Independence clearly states that certain rights are unalienable. There are liberties to which all of mankind, in all places, at all times are entitled. Religious freedom is one of them. Our Constitution puts it in the very first amendment.”

“Thomas Jefferson, our first Secretary of State, [helped author the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom,“ which states, ‘Almighty God hath created the mind free… No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.’”

“The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms religious freedom or belief as a universal right.”

“Today, we come together to turn our convictions into action. And there’s not a moment to lose. A shocking 83 percent of the world’s population live in nations where religious freedom is either threatened or denied entirely.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news of the Cuban evangelical leaders who registered for this very event to come here to Washington but were not permitted to come. . . . [T]he Cuban government prevented them from . . . [coming] to express their religious freedom. Such is the thuggish, intolerant nature of the current regime in Havana.” (Emphasis added.)

The Secretary then commented about violations of religious freedom in Iran, Burma and China.

“{L]ookl at what we’ve accomplished as a result of last year’s ministerial.”

“The State Department has established an International Religious Freedom Fund – a multi-donor fund that provides rapid assistance to victims of persecution all throughout the world. It’s already serving good, and its purpose around the world is expanding. . . . We encourage more countries to step up to the plate and donate and contribute to this important cause that can do so much good all around the world.”

Here are other examples. The “United Arab Emirates they hosted the first regional conference in February on promoting religious tolerance in their curricula. . . .  {T]he nations of the Organization of American States unanimously put forth their first ever statement, introduced by the United States, affirming religious freedom in our hemisphere. Along with the United Kingdom, the United States co-sponsored a groundbreaking conference this past November on meeting the needs of vulnerable religious minorities in conflict zones. And several governments have created special ambassadors specifically charged with advancing religious freedom in their country and around the world.”

The State Department “recently commissioned a group called the Commission on Unalienable Rights to generate a serious debate about human rights that extends across party lines and across national borders. The commission’s purpose is very simple. We’re not out to discover new principles but to ground our discussion of human rights in America’s founding principles, and religious freedom is certainly amongst them.”

“In 2019, the State Department introduced mandatory training on international religious freedom for every one of our Foreign Service Officers. We’ve, so far, trained nearly 12,000 employees on how to identify religious discrimination and persecution and how to work closely with faith leaders all across the world. It is incredibly important that our diplomats be our ambassadors for this first freedom.”

“We should all consistently speak out about abuses of religious freedom. It’s the least that we can do. Today, we have nine statements of concern on countries and issues all teed up. I would ask each of you to sign them in solidarity.”

“Albania, Colombia, Morocco, and the Vatican will host regional conferences in the near future.”

“Thanks to Poland’s efforts, the UN General Assembly has named August 22nd as a special day to remember the victims of religious persecution. Please commemorate it in your home countries too. And we should all keep making the case at the United Nations and in other bodies that religious freedom should be a priority for that institution.”

“But governments alone can’t properly tackle this problem. Our countries need to support civil society groups.”

“I’m very proud to announce today a new effort that’s intended to help us in our goals across the board. We will create the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We hope that this new vehicle – the first every international body devoted to this specific topic – will build on efforts to date and bring likeminded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom. . . . it will defend the unalienable rights for all human beings to believe – or not to believe – whatever it is they choose.”

“You all came here because you understand that it is our responsibility to help them. We’re all in this fight together. You can be sure that the United States will be out front defending the God-given, unalienable right of all human beings to worship as they choose.”

Vice President Pence’s Remarks

“Since the earliest days of our nation, America has stood for religious freedom.  Our first settlers left their homes and all they knew for the chance to, as they said, “Begin the world [all] over again.”  They carved protections for religious liberty into the founding charters of our nation and our very earliest laws.  And after our independence was won, the crafters of America’s Constitution enshrined religious liberty as the first of our American freedoms.”

“Our Declaration of Independence proclaims that our precious liberties are not the gift of government, but rather they’re the unalienable rights endowed by our Creator.  Americans believe that people should live by the dictates of their conscience, not the diktats of government.”

“Free minds build free markets.  And wherever religious liberty is allowed to take root, it is prosperity and peace that ultimately flourish as well.”

“And as we tell even our closest allies, those who reject religious freedom are more likely to breed radicalism and resentment; that it can sow those seeds of violence and it can too often cross borders. And those who deny religious freedom to their own people often have few qualms denying those rights to others.”

“The list of religious freedom violators is long; their oppressions span the globe.” It includes Burma, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Iran, Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.”

“While religious freedom is always in danger in authoritarian regimes, threats to religious minorities, sadly, are not confined to autocracies or dictatorships.  The truth is, they can and do arise in free societies, as well, not from government persecution, but from prejudice. This is the evil of Anti-Semitism.”

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[1] State Dep’t, Secretary Pompeo Convenes Second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (June 25, 2019); State Dep’t, Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom Convenes Opening and Closing Events (July 12, 2019). The first Ministerial in July 2018 was discussed in a prior post.

[2] State Dep’t, Day 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 16, 2019).

[3] State Dept, Day 2: Track 1: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 2: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); State Dept, Day 2: Track 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 17, 2019); The White House, Remarks by President Trump in Meeting with Survivors of Religious Persecution (July 17, 2019); Cuban Pastor Denounces Cuban Violations of Religious Freedoms to President Donald Trump, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019); The regime prevents two of Cuba’s leading evangelical leaders from leaving the country, Diario de Cuba (July 14, 2019); We have nothing to hide’: the Evangelical League of Cuba, Diario de Cuba (July 19, 2019).

[4] State Dep’t, Day 3: 2019 Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Keynote Address at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (July 18, 2019); The White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial (July 18, 2019). The prior day the Secretary made a similar speech for the presentation of international religious freedom awards. (State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the Reception for the Ministerial To Advance Religious Freedom and Presentation of the International Religious Freedom Awards (July 17, 2019).

 

 

 

“Is One New Humanity Possible?”

Sunday, October 7, was World Communion Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. This was celebrated with global music, including pieces from African-Americans (“McKee” by Matthew H. Cori and “In Christ There Is No  East or West”), Japan (“Here, O Lord, Your Servants Gather” by Isao Koizumi), Taiwan (“Search Me, O God”), Argentina (“Glory, Glory, Glory”), Jamaica (“Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”) and South Africa (“Thula Sizwe”).

The sermon, “Is One New Humanity Possible?” by Senior Pastor Tim Hart-Andersen explored this global theme as well.

The Scriptures

Ephesians 2:11-22 (NRSV):  

  • “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘he circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body[ through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into dwelling place for God.”

The Sermon

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.”

“The problem in Ephesus 2000 years ago was a divided humanity and the animosity that came with it – not all that different from the times in which we live, in many ways.”

“So Christ Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”

“From the Jewish perspective the population of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus was split in two, those “who were near’ – Jews, members of the covenant community of God’s people – and those ‘who were far off’ – Gentiles, outside the circle of the covenant community. ‘Near’ and ‘far off’ are not geographic terms; they refer to neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, people you see in the store, between whom there existed, in the words of Ephesians, a ‘dividing wall of hostility.’”

“In Ephesus those not sharing the same faith tradition or language, culture or politics did not share the same humanity. They were separated. They were other. They were alien. They were far off and someone else was at the center.”

“The problem of ‘the other’ is as old as humanity itself. It was there in Ephesus, and it is here, among us, today. It appeared in a variety of guises back then; the world was divided into male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek. There was always the other.”

“It’s no different in our time. Racism grows out of an othering based on skin color. People with differing abilities become the other. Or people making minimum wage. Or immigrants. Or people of wealth. Or people living on the streets. And on and on it goes…rural-urban, left-right, Republicans-Democrats, men-women.”

“Sometimes we’re the other; sometimes we do the othering. We all tend to conjugate humanity into what we perceive to be its constituent parts – as if that will solve something or somehow satisfy us.”

“On the contrary, that tendency, if left unchecked, will be our undoing. That’s true not only in our national life, but on the global stage, as well. If we continue to approach the world and life in our communities as if our particular group or nation . . . [was] at the center, isolated from others not like us, that center will not hold. The dividing walls of hostility between them and us, if not dismantled, will ruin us.”

“The response of the Christian Church in ancient Ephesus was to use their imagination and develop a dream of an utterly different world in which people celebrated and welcomed the other. The followers of Jesus referred to it as a new humanity, and they saw it as God’s intention in Jesus Christ. The goal was not to do away with differences or cover them over or negate them, as if they weren’t real, but, rather, to learn to live with them, and to see them as a strength…in fact, places where God might be found.”

“’So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,’ the writer of Ephesians says, ‘But you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.’”

Václav Havel argues that only by transcending the self – which is the goal of religious traditions – will we overcome our tendency to deny the humanity of the other. He defines transcendence as…“A deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, with what we do not understand, with what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world.[1]

“One new humanity.”

“At the conclusion of one of the most rancorous and dispiriting and painful weeks in recent American history, and a month away from a pivotal, acrimonious election, one new humanity seems impossible to attain – almost ludicrous to consider, even laughable. Political culture has been debased to a take-no-prisoners approach in which survivors of sexual assault are mocked, opponents are bullied, and lying has become acceptable.”

“As followers of Jesus we’re committed to a moral vision for our life together, but it doesn’t look like that.”

“One new humanity will not abide division based on race or economics, gender or social position or power. It will insist on the inherent worth of every individual. It will never stop asking how to make the world more just. It will seek to sustain the one, beautiful planet we have. And it will reject fundamentalism of any kind, because fundamentalisms, whether religious or political, are always declared at someone else’s expense. They thrive on an ‘other,’ who is wrong, who is outside, who is not included.”

“This is not a secular vision, devoid of spiritual content. It’s a religious vision – our religious vision. Ephesians is clear about this, and we should be, too. For us, Jesus Christ is the wellspring of one new humanity. To follow Jesus means to enter into the difficult work of learning to live together with all our differences and disagreements. Our faith in Jesus compels us to speak the truth, yes, sometimes with righteous rage, but always in love, trying not to let anger over injustice turn us into that which we protest.”

“One new humanity. Small steps matter. It will take disarming imagination to do this, like that of a seven-year old. We’ll need a new way of seeing the world, born of our religious conviction and counter to everything the world tells us. We’re going to have to resist and reject the way the world is and offer an alternative vision.”

Václav Havel says a divided, rancorous, hostile world calls for transcendence that refuses to let the way things are, be the way they have to be. Can we not dream beyond the ugly reality that has such a vice-grip on us and then work together toward that dream, that vision that emerged from Ephesus so many years ago?”

“The monk Thomas Merton described a vision, . . . so moving and so descriptive of the essence of what we’re trying to do with a religious vision that reaches past the otherness in which we dwell. It happened to him on March 18, 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky. ‘At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district,’  Merton writes,’I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.’”[2]

“Our nation is desperate for such a vision to begin to remove the dividing wall of hostility – not to make us all the same and agree on everything, but to teach us to live with our differences in a way that honors them and respects them, and each one of us. I’m not talking only about political differences, although they may be uppermost in our mind these days. But I’m also thinking about race and socio-economic status, and education, and geography, and where we live in the city.”

“The old order was based on fear, and when we are afraid of one another we turn each other into enemies. The new order that comes out of the gospel is based on hope – and, as Maya Angelou says, ‘Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space.’”

“E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. It was the imperfect vision of the nation’s founders, with which we are still blessed and which we are still trying to get right.”

“Last summer in New Mexico we climbed to the top of a high mesa one day. It was a stunning view. We could see for miles over the desert landscape. Another couple soon joined us. They were immigrants from Albania. We talked, and they told us their story. They had fled as refugees to Greece, Italy, and other countries, before finally being welcomed to the U.S. They were so happy to be here. They both had settled and found jobs, and now they were on a road trip to take in their new country.”

“’God bless America,’ they said in heavily accented English. They were aliens no more.”

“Citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

“One new humanity is possible, but it will take vision, and work. It’s the calling of the church. Some of us will have to set aside the privilege we enjoy, by virtue of where we fit in the culture, in order to enter the narrative of people considered the other, because our very status is a wall, whether we want it to be or not, between us and them. A good way to begin might be by listening to one another, listening to one another as we have never listened before.”

“Westminster’s Race and Grace dialogues are one place where that listening is happening. It happens, as well, in our global partnerships in Cuba, Palestine, and Cameroon, as we listen and then learn the stories of people who have been othered by history. And it can happen where we work, with our neighbors, at school. Even in our families. I know families are feeling these dividing walls of hostility. I hear it all the time from church members.”

“I had my own Thomas Merton-like moment last week. We went out to eat at a Vietnamese restaurant 15 blocks south of here called Quang Restaurant.

“It has one big, open room, no divisions, with lots of tables, and they were all full. It was like walking into the world at dinner. There were people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe sitting at the tables. Older folks, young families, single adults, children running around. Different languages. People who drove fancy new cars and others who came on the bus. Mixed groups eating together and talking with one another.”

“It was noisy and steamy and smelled of good food, and I suddenly felt kinship with them all, as if everyone were at the same table. It was World Communion Sunday a few days early. I had glimpsed – in Quang’s – the friendship within the human family that God so desires of us.”

“One new humanity is possible, through the transcendent power of God’s love, as we know that love in Jesus Christ – a love that can overcome anything that wants to keep us apart, even the dividing walls of hostility among us. And then one new humanity, one new humanity, has a chance of growing.”

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

One new humanity is possible. Everyone can contribute to making that possible, one small step at a time. With humility each of us needs to recognize that one individual cannot do it all yourself, but that you can do something within your limited circumstances. Also recognize that sometimes you will fail in this effort and you will ask God for forgiveness.

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[1] Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a Czech statesman, writer and former dissident, who served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until its dissolution in 1992 and then as the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. The above quotation appeared in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference [New York: Continuum, 2000], p. 45); Sachs, now Baron Sacks, MBE is a British Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author and politician who served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

[2] Thomas Merton’s Mystical Vision in Louisville, Spiritual Travels.