". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Religious Freedom: The Missing Component for International Development

July 8, 2022

Martine was only eight years old when she was kidnapped by radical ISIS militants.

In 2014, ISIS invaded Iraq and began attacking the Yazidis, an ethnic and religious group that practices ancient Yazidism. ISIS, a Sunni jihadist group, considers Yazidis to be infidels — “not human beings.” In an atrocious act of religious violence, the radical Islamic group overran Yazidi communities, capturing nearly 7,000 women and children, selling them into slavery, and leaving behind mass graves with over 12,000 murdered Yazidi people.

The day they invaded Martine’s village, ISIS militants scattered her family, trucking Martine from town to town for weeks before she was sold as a slave to a middle-aged ISIS combatant. For years, the young child endured repeated, horrific physical and sexual abuse. Although Martine has since escaped, nearly 3,000 Yazidis remain in ISIS captivity.

Stories like Martine’s are not rare; religious intolerance is rampant in Iraq. Few could look at the stories of discrimination, persecution, and violence and deny the country’s chaotic lawlessness. And the data confirms it. According to a Pew Research Center study on religious hostility and restrictions around the world, from 2007 to 2019 (the last year data has been available), Iraq has stayed stable with either “high” or “very high” social hostilities and government restrictions. 

Iraq’s religious intolerance has continued to attract the attention of the U.S. government. Since fiscal year 2014, in an effort to stabilize the country and protect citizens like Martine, the U.S. has poured over $3 billion of humanitarian assistance into Iraq. Yet, there have been few signs of improvement. Tolerance has not increased, and the aid has done little for Iraq’s fragile economy, worsened by its unstable political conditions and rampant corruption.

According to its mission statement, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) exists, in part, to “promote and demonstrate democratic values abroad, and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.” As can be seen in the case of Iraq, despite receiving billions of dollars from the U.S., there has been little progress toward this ideal. Other countries face this same dilemma, despite receiving staggering amounts of U.S. aid. 

So, why has our humanitarian assistance made so little progress toward a “free, peaceful, and prosperous world”? The answer is simple: We are neglecting religious freedom in our development efforts. 

There are numerous studies and reports that demonstrate religious freedom as a significant factor to economic growth and stability, innovation, civil peace, reconciliation, and opportunities for minorities. But why does religious freedom have such a profound influence on a nation’s development?

Religious freedom fosters tolerance, respect for human dignity, cooperation, and the rule of law — all elements that naturally gives rise to a flourishing society. Without tolerance, respect, and communication, the innovation, entrepreneurship, and human capital that brings nations out of poverty would be stifled. Without collaboration and societal order, devastating civil unrest, conflict, and injustice easily take root. Religious freedom is important to religious minorities — but it also has very real economic and political implications for the entire nation. 

If the U.S. government wants to see these countries develop into thriving, stable, and tolerant societies, it must make concerted efforts to integrate religious freedom into development efforts — and the U.S. should want this. U.S. aid is more than money given out of benevolence; it is also a tool to reach our national objectives. Through effective aid, the U.S. can mitigate costly conflicts and gain rising economic partners. By integrating religious freedom into its development efforts, our nation can support persecuted religious minorities like Martine and her family while securing important U.S. interests.

A recent research report by Family Research Council and Regent University’s Robertson School of Government titled “Why International Religious Freedom is Vital to International Development: Causal Connections and Policy Recommendations” explores this important question. Through interviews with government practitioners, religious freedom advocates, and academic experts, FRC and the Robertson School of Government identified some of the greatest obstacles to integrating religious freedom and U.S. development efforts and identified policy recommendations to overcome these challenges. 

The U.S. has been greatly blessed in resources and influence. Our nation now has the responsibility to steward these gifts well. By recognizing the importance of religious freedom to development and integrating it into our development efforts, we can take great strides toward greater freedom and prosperity around the globe.

Hannah Waters is a research assistant for the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council.