Challenges Ahead for Religious Freedom Abroad

This week the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a summit in honor of the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Signed in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, IRFA established USCIRF as an independent government watchdog, as well as the office within the State Department now led by Ambassador Sam Brownback.

During the summit, it was clear much work still needs to be done to advance what America at its founding embraced as its first freedom. High on the minds of many in the room were individual cases of those imprisoned for their faith around the world, including Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey.

Despite hopes Turkey would release him, Brunson, an American citizen from North Carolina, was ordered back to a dangerous prison and his trial suspended until next month. U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Ambassador Brownback were both present for the first day of Brunson’s trial. Following that session, Brownback said on Washington Watch with Tony Perkins, “This fight’s far from over.” Perkins noted that Turkey is a NATO ally and that this would seem to strain U.S.-Turkey relations. Brownback said, “It does and it has. And it doesn’t make much sense.” Indeed, at the summit this week, USCIRF Vice Chairwoman Kristina Arriaga called for targeted sanctions against Turkey in response to this “hostage diplomacy.”

Prior USCIRF chairs Robbie George, Katrina Lantos Swett, Leonard Leo, and David Saperstein were on hand for the summit, as was the author of the 1998 IRFA, former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). He emphasized the importance of religious leaders being committed and focused on this issue. Also, stating that no one would represent the Soviet Union in the Reagan era, Wolf called out Washington lobbyists representing foreign governments that have been cited for freedom violations.

Reflecting on lessons from the past, particularly with a glimpse at the story of the French Huguenots, Lantos Swett suggested “history is not kind to, nor does it ultimately reward, those who trample on the religious rights and freedoms of others.” Highlighting economic benefits that often correlate with liberty, she said that defending religious freedom is not only right, but smart.

Find out more about this event from USCIRF here.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: April 20, 2018

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