National Religious Freedom Day 2018

Since 1993, the President of the United States has proclaimed January 16 as National Religious Freedom Day, commemorating the Virginia General Assembly‘s adoption of Thomas Jefferson‘s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16, 1786.

The idea of Freedom of Religion is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The United States policy is that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’ (Article 18 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). To advance this policy, the United States marks October 27 annually as International Religious Freedom (IRF) Day.  On October 27, we celebrate International Religious Freedom Day, in commemoration of the 1998 enactment of the International Religious Freedom Act.

On Religious Freedom Day, the U.S. government reaffirms its commitment to promote respect for religious freedom and diversity; to promote accountability for religious-based violence; and to urge other governments to adopt legal protections for religious minorities and religious practice.

As part of the Embassy’s work on this issue, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South / Central Asia, Knox Thames visited Denmark to participate in a high level meeting on freedom of religion or belief, meeting with people working within this field in Denmark.

During his visit to Denmark, Special Advisor Thames delivered the following presentation at the Danish Ministry for Foreign Affairs on January 11, 2018:


Freedom of religion or belief is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and we are committed to working with our friends and allies to advance this right globally. The U.S. government views it as critically important that all persons be treated equally, regardless of their faith.  No one should be forced to convert, jailed, silenced, or killed because of their beliefs. This commitment is a foundational tenet of the United States, established in our constitution domestically and mandated in statutes regarding our international engagements. The United States welcomes Denmark’s leadership on this issue and the presence of other countries gathered here today around this common concern.

Religious freedom at its core is about freedom of conscience, the right of individuals to hold the beliefs of their choice, to change faiths, or to hold no faith at all.  It is about the ability of individuals to worship alone or in community with others, to educate children in conformity with parents’ convictions, and to share one’s faith through teaching and other communication. It is a capacious right, one that is strongly linked with other human rights and fundamental freedoms like peaceful assembly and expression. 

It truly is a universal value, a human right belonging to every individual without exception. Religious freedom is a fundamental building block of the democracies we represent, an essential condition for sustainable peace, security, and stability. And our own internal research shows countries that respect and protect religious freedom and other fundamental freedoms appear less likely to experience the development of violent extremism and terrorism. 

The world is an increasingly hostile place for religious freedom and religious diversity. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that almost 80 percent of the global population lives in countries with high or very high levels of religion-based government restrictions and/or societal hostilities. Consequently, three out of every four individuals on earth live in countries that limit their ability to fully enjoy freedom of religion or belief.   

Government repression endures, with actions targeting members of religious minority groups. We see the persecution of Christians in too many countries. We see the targeting Baha’is for mistreatment in Iran. We see Muslims and non-Muslims alike jailed for denigration of religion in Egypt, and Pakistan prosecuting members of minority groups for blasphemy. We see severe limitations on the right to freedom of religion or belief in Saudi Arabia. We see the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and restrictions across Southeast Asia. In Africa, we see the Sudanese government arresting clergy and church members, denying permits for the construction of new churches, and closing or demolishing existing churches, while in Eritrea the government has kept the Orthodox patriarch under house arrest for over ten years. In Central Asia, we see the governments of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan maintaining incredibly tight controls on the free practice of religion for all. 

But it is not only governments who persecute.  Persistent attacks on members of religious minority groups come from a variety of non-state actors. Examples of Christian populations being targeted by non-state actors include in Pakistan, where a Christmas service in Quetta was attacked by ISIS affiliates. Violence against Christians has also occurred across Egypt—Cairo, Alexandria, Minya, and the Sinai—as well as across Iraq and Syria where ISIS committed many atrocities. 

Members of other religious communities have also suffered greatly at the hands of violent extremists, including, in the case of ISIS, genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing committed against certain groups. ISIS has launched attacks on Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and Kakai in Iraq, and perpetrated sexual slavery and abuse of Yezidis. ISIS has targeted Shia Muslims for just being Shia. A Shia cultural center was recently attacked in Kabul, with ISIS claiming responsibility. ISIS strikes out at any Sunnis brave enough to denounce its hateful ideology—including religious leaders. 

But the news is not all bad. In my extensive travels since taking up this post almost two years ago, I have witnessed examples of increasing religious tolerance. I have seen this in the effort in Marrakesh where Islamic scholars promoted equal citizenship for members of religious minorities. I have seen this in Egypt with Muslim and Christian clerics coming together for community development work. I have seen this in Tunisia with the remarkable display of government support for the annual pilgrimage to the Djerba island synagogue, as well as ongoing efforts by the government to constructively engage with Tunisia’s other religious minorities. I have seen this in the Persian Gulf, such as with the United Arab Emirates and Oman allowing for the construction of churches as well as Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras.

To protect religious diversity and pluralism, and promote durable and lasting peace and security, we must all work together to protect the freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. 

The United States is fully committed. Vice President Pence made clear that, “Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a foreign policy priority of the Trump administration,” which “is fully committed in bringing relief and comfort to believers not only across the Middle East but across the world.”

The U.S. National Security Strategy released by the White House in December recognizes that religious minorities continue to be victims of violence and stated explicitly that the United States “will advocate on behalf of religious freedom and threatened minorities…. We will place a priority on protecting members of these groups and will continue working with regional partners to protect minority communities from attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage.”

As many know, the U.S. Department of State has unique structures which focus on religious freedom, which has been a distinctive part of our diplomacy for 20 years. The Office of International Religious Freedom, led by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, was created by our Congress in 1998, along with an independent advisory body. This groundbreaking legislation reflected the unique role of religious freedom in our nation’s history and our desire to ensure that everyone everywhere can practice their faith freely and peacefully. Recent amendments to this statute made clear that religious freedom includes the right to believe or not believe in a faith, therefore capturing the Belief prong of “freedom of religion or belief.” Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas has been nominated for the position of Ambassador at Large, making him the highest ranking official to be nominated for this post. My envoy position at the Department was added about two years ago at Congress’ direction, to sharpen U.S. government efforts to assist members of religious minorities in the Middle East and in South and Central Asia. 

In this effort, we want to work with our friends and allies. For instance, I co-chair, with my Canadian friend Giuliana Natale, the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG), a network of about 25 countries committed to advancing Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Canada has been a partner and a leader. Together, the ICG has spoken out about religious freedom violations and abuses in Pakistan, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, and recently several ICG members publically called for Eritrea to unconditionally release the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarchate from over a decade of house arrest. 

In addition, I and others have been involved in creating a parallel effort to connect parliamentarians who support freedom of religion or belief. The International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPP) was launched in Norway in November 2014 at the Nobel Peace Center. The event ended with the signing of the Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The IPP has a network of over 100 parliamentarians from across the globe committed to advancing religious freedom for all.  In its short life, the IPP has been active—sending letters of intervention on Pakistan, Burma, and North Korea.

The European Union and the European Parliament have also increased their ability to advance religious freedom. The EU issued a comprehensive set of policy guidelines in 2013 to help instruct EU missions and member states about how to engage on religious freedom in countries of concern. We also welcomed European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker creating in 2016 the position of Special Envoy for the promotion of the freedom of religion or belief outside of the EU and appointing Ján Figeľ. The European Parliament has become better equipped. After the last election, the previous Working Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief was upgraded to become the Inter-Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance. 

In addition, countries have worked to combat the unique threat ISIS presents to members of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. The United States has partnered with France and Spain to convene high level conferences in Paris, Washington, and most recently Madrid, to challenge governments and others to do more to aid members of religious and ethnic minority communities threatened by ISIS and other terrorist organizations.

So the world is responding. The question before all of us today is what more we can do as a community of values—a community that respects diversity of thought and belief—that truly believes religious freedom is an essential precondition for lasting peace.

We are here because our countries have witnessed an alarming number of attacks on religious freedom and pluralism around the world and our citizens want our governments to respond. The stakes are dangerously high for religious communities around the globe. In the upcoming year, I think we will see increasing pressure on Christians in the Middle East and continuing attacks on religious minorities globally. Elections will spur violence against the religious “other,” and repressive laws restricting religious practice will continue to proliferate. Too many will suffer: Christians, Jews, and Muslims; Baha’is and Yezidis; Hindus and Sikhs; converts and atheists; and countless others.  Too many will fall victim to conflict and persecution, and need our help. And because of this, global interest in religious freedom will grow. 

In response, we must stay committed to emphasizing the universal importance of this fundamental right. In my almost two decades of experience in this field, I have concluded that we can achieve durable and lasting results by creating an environment where freedom of religion or belief is enjoyed by all. To be clear, focusing on certain groups is often appropriate. But we should have a “both/and” approach, not an “either/or” approach.  The United States is committed to advancing this right holistically, while being sure our advocacy is specific when members of faith communities are targeted. Our efforts are narrow in advocacy but all-encompassing in approach.

Today’s challenges stretch beyond the capabilities of any one government or organization. And the opponents to freedom of thought, conscience and religion are networking. Groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to propagate their narratives of grievance around the world. Radical Buddhist monks from Burma have made common cause with their coreligionists in Sri Lanka. Authoritarian regimes, including North Korea, share “best practices” in repression and defend each other before the United Nations and other international venues. We ignore these challenges at our peril and at the cost of human suffering. Our collective action, our coordination of resources, our pooling of influence can meet this challenge and begin to bring about positive change. 

In the United States, every January we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor from the American south who led a historic movement for racial equality in our country. If he were still alive today, I think he would welcome this gathering. One of his most powerful quotes comes from the open letter he wrote in April 1963 from a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. Commenting on the interrelatedness of all communities he states, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Written more than 50 years ago, Dr. King’s words are prescient, as our world is growing smaller and peoples and faiths intermixing as never before. We truly are part of an “inescapable network of mutuality.” With the challenge before us, let us work to redouble our joint efforts to ensure that people everywhere can peacefully live out the faith of their choosing, without fear of harm or reprisal.