‘We Never Fight Alone’: 2024 International Religious Freedom Summit
We all want freedom. We want the freedom to choose where to live, work, or go to school. We want the freedom to protect and express ourselves. And we want the freedom to worship. In America, it’s a tremendous privilege for these rights to be protected by our Constitution. But the fact remains that many countries around the world are not so fortunate. Even in America, we face those who want to limit these freedoms to one degree or another.
But in countries like China, North Korea, Nicaragua, and several others, many freedoms we consider to be basic human rights have been stripped away by cruel dictators and evil regimes. Religious freedom, in particular, has been under attack for some time now. And for those suffering greatly because of it, hope is easy to lose sight of.
On Tuesday, the 2024 International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF) began as a means to bring awareness to the immense religious persecution occurring globally and to offer hope amid the darkness. Overarchingly, it’s focus is geared on three central themes:
1. Religious freedom matters for everyone.
As emphasized during the summit, it’s a common misconception that religious freedom only applies to those of faith. In many ways, even an atheist is protected by religious liberty since they, too, have the freedom to hold or not hold convictions. But a threat to one religion is a threat to all religions. And all threats to religion are rooted in “dehumanizing rhetoric,” said Rashad Hussain, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.
History has proved that many acts of hatred against religious groups have led to genocide such as with the Jews during the Holocaust. Even today, as one example, the Uyghurs are facing genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. But the threat does not end with those overseas. Nazila Ghanea, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom for Religion or Belief, said, “Every act of hatred should be a warning sign for states to act.”
An important lesson the speakers wanted the audience to take away is that many atrocities in history started not with actions but with words. And ultimately, as Institute of Peace CEO Lise Grande said, “Religious freedom and lasting peace go hand in hand,” and that truth applies to everyone.
2. Everyone can play a part in advancing religious freedom.
This theme was wrapped in a message of unity. IRF Chairman Robert Rehak stated that “the times are very bad,” and will likely continue to get worse. “But if we join forces, we can overcome everything,” he emphasized, highlighting the importance of the various voices fighting for religious liberty to come together to amplify the message that religious intolerance is not acceptable.
Rehak added that if “freedom [is] taken from anyone in the world,” then it’s taken from everyone. As such, “We have the responsibility to care for those in the world” who can’t live freely. And we do so by preparing and training those who have the strongest impact because, as Grande said, “If people aren’t trained, then they will not be effective.” We also fight for freedom by bringing awareness to those who are imprisoned, beaten, and persecuted for their faith on a daily basis using our social media platforms, she noted.
There are many other ways to aid this mission, but the most impactful means to this end is to stand firm. Those who seek to destroy the right to religious freedom will likely stop at nothing, so for ourselves and others, it’s in our best interest to make sure a strong fight is given in return. It was said during the summit that America shines brightest when we speak up for the oppressed. And in fighting for freedom of religion, both in the U.S. and around the world, we do just that.
3. Tragedies occur when religious freedom is hindered or blocked entirely.
“We all have our stories,” said Siranush Sargsyan, a displaced Artsakh journalist who spoke on a panel. But even with the differences between testimonies, there’s a lot that’s the same, she added. Ultimately, religious persecution only brings restriction, pain, and loss to life as a whole.
Throughout the event, multiple different faiths were represented. Additionally, there were several victims of religious persecution in attendance, and even more who could not come without threatening their lives further. There were individuals present who have had loved ones beaten, imprisoned, or executed because of religious intolerance. And many panelists reflected on the rising anti-Semitism that has occurred in the wake of the October 7 attacks Hamas inflicted on the people and state of Israel. Concerning these sad realities, the truth remains that the more religious freedom is hindered or blocked entirely, the more these kinds of hateful acts will spread to every nation.
In light of that, Payam Akhaven, co-founder of the Iranian Human Rights Documentation Center, shared, “We need visionary leadership” as a “matter of survival,” and free nations can’t afford to respond too late, other speakers urged.
Former U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback emphasized that a lot of this discussion comes down to helping people understand this is a core issue concerning human dignity. Like the pro-life movement that fights to protect real babies in the womb, the focus needs to be on the fact that real people are deeply harmed by a lack of religious freedom, and they will continue to be if nothing is done. But “we just have to keep at it,” Rashad stated. As former Vice President Mike Pence concluded, “We never fight alone” with God in charge, so “never give up hope.”
Sarah Holliday is a reporter at The Washington Stand.