Religious, Civic Leaders Meet in Washington to Discuss Religious Freedom

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by Shanta Premawardhana, President of OMNIA

President Trump’s recent provocative tweet to Iran's President Rouhani caught many, including the U.S.  State Department and the military, off guard. Responding to a line in a speech by Rouhani stating, “America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.,” Trump blasted, in all caps, “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE…”

This is dangerous talk under any circumstances.  But what gets lost in this interchange is that President Trump, a self-avowed Christian who enjoys the support of many leaders and followers on the Christian right, has just issued a threat to the leader of a Shi’ite Muslim theocratic state. Despite the fact that the US is a secular country, and most Iranians are largely secular, this looks very much like a religious threat.

It is against this precarious backdrop that that the US State Department is holding its first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.  I will be in attendance at the invitation of the State Department and joins U.S. government officials, opinion leaders, and civil and religious leaders seeking to address concerns of religious freedom and to better equip civil society with resources to meet those needs.  They will also hear from Survivors of religious persecution.

The Problem of Religious Intolerance

 Young Fulani herdsman, escaping famine in Nigerian desert

Young Fulani herdsman, escaping famine in Nigerian desert

Religious intolerance and persecution are serious problems across the world, including in locations where OMNIA works. In Nigeria, Fulani herders who are migrating southwards to escape the encroaching desert, are inflicting violence and death on farmers, and not just over grazing rights, but over religious differences as well.  On June 23-24, Muslim Fulani herdsmen with machetes and firearms slaughtered more than 200 people in 10 predominantly Christian communities in and around Jos, Nigeria.  The heart-rending stories from our friends in Nigeria include the killing of pastor Musa Choji and his wife and son, while he was conducting a funeral, the killing of some 120 people returning home from a funeral, and the burning down of the entire village of Gidin Akwati. A pastor in the ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All) denomination described how 14 members of his wife’s family were killed, and their village burned.

Many Christian leaders, including prominent Bishops, are accusing the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, of being unwilling to effectively address the violence.

In Sri Lanka, also served by OMNIA, recent violence by extremist Buddhists have led to a series of attacks against Muslims in several villages. Partly because the violence is led and incited by Buddhist monks, the government is reluctant to act forcefully to stop the violence.

Separation of Church & State Under Siege

Meanwhile in the United States, religious freedom is constantly under threat by many on the religious right who are working to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state. Despite its fervent rhetoric about our nation’s commitment to religious freedom, a recent executive order by President Trump prevents Muslims from 7 countries from coming to the US, leading some to wonder if religious freedom in the US, actually means Christian freedom!

Persecution and violence against religious communities are happening in many other parts of the world. In my previous post as Director of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation for the World Council of Churches, I addressed the problem of religious persecution in many countries including Pakistan, India, and Israel and Palestine. But in recent years, incidents of religious extremism have risen.  The problem is not merely differences of theological opinion, but a disturbing trend toward religiously motivated oppression, domination, and violence, that is most troubling.  This is the very definition of religious extremism, and even in secular states such as the United States, extremist dogma is providing theological cover for all sorts of political oppression. This is why it is critical that religious leaders step outside their own context and take collective responsibility.

From Tweets to Transformative Action

Thankfully, more governments are taking steps to address violations of religious freedom. This year, the British and Danish governments appointed their first special ambassadors on freedom of religion or belief. The UN appointed a special rapporteur and the EU, an ambassador. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom was significantly strengthened under the former ambassador for religious freedom (under the Obama administration), Rabbi David Saperstein. The present ambassador Sam Brownback (former governor of Kansas) has demonstrated his commitment to religious freedom in the convening of the current Ministerial. However, the current political climate is decidedly less welcoming to religious diversity. What officials will do with the findings of this event remains to be seen.

For decades religion and foreign policymakers have had an ambiguous relationship. Bureaucrats at the State Department generally assumed that they should not be talking about religion even though religion plays an increasingly pivotal role in global politics. The assumption that the main driver of US domestic and foreign policy should be global economics is now being challenged. OMNIA steps into this breach. It encourages a deeper exploration of the issues around religious freedom and offers its unique global and theological perspective.   

Updates from the Ministerial will be tweeted at #IRFMinisterial. Do follow along at your convenience through OMNIA’s Facebook and Twitter.   Expect more about this important event over the next few days.