What’s at Stake for International Religious Freedom

What’s at Stake for International Religious Freedom

In his memoir, “Just As I Am,” Billy Graham summarized the importance of international religious freedom to the fulfillment of the Great Commission while reflecting upon his first trip to Moscow. 

“I left Moscow in 1959,” Mr. Graham wrote, “with a dream, a hope and a prayer that someday I, along with many others, might proclaim the Gospel throughout that vast country.” 

Eventually his dream would come true. 

In 1992, less than one year after the fall of the Soviet Union, Mr. Graham held a Crusade in Moscow that drew more than 100,000 people to the country’s Olympic Stadium—a miracle made possible by freedom. 

A world where freedom of religion exists is a world where the Gospel can advance easily. Unfortunately, we are living in a world where freedom of religion is under attack. Christians and other religious communities are being persecuted on an incomprehensible scale. 

When religious freedom is prioritized in the foreign policy of the United States, it makes a major difference around the world. 

Just look at what happened on April 30, 2018, when President Donald Trump stood next to the visiting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in a Rose Garden at full bloom. 

You might not remember the day, but Buhari will likely never forget it. 

It was the day when the leader of the world’s most affluent and powerful country, the president of the United States, dispensed of all diplomatic niceties and confronted the Nigerian president on live video in front of the entire world about the one subject he wasn’t interested in speaking about. 

“We’re deeply concerned by religious violence in Nigeria,” President Trump said as he addressed Buhari directly, “including the burning of churches, and the killing and persecution of Christians.” 

Then, he demanded that Buhari’s government do “everything in [its] power to immediately secure … [and] protect innocent civilians of all faiths.”

For those Americans who’ve paid any attention to the slow march to genocide against Christians in northern and central Nigeria, the comment by the president might have felt like something obvious and even expected. 

But it wasn’t what Buhari, or many other leaders around the world, had become accustomed to from previous administrations. 

That’s because religious freedom has often been part of American foreign policy but rarely at the very heart of our foreign policy as it has been in the Trump administration. 

President Trump, for instance, hosted the first-ever event dedicated to religious freedom at the United Nations General Assembly. At the event he said, “Today, with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution.” 

This is why the president has twice assembled foreign ministers from around the world for an annual ministerial on religious freedom. Those events were the largest human rights events of any kind ever convened by any administration. 

This is why President Trump fought for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, and even sanctioned Turkey, a NATO member, until its economy nearly crashed, in order to achieve Brunson’s release. 

He has sanctioned countless leaders, and countries, for religious freedom violations (like China, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela), and he has funded at least a half-billion dollars of special humanitarian assistance through USAID to promote religious freedom. He has also required religious freedom training for every single State Department employee. 

Religious freedom was on the administration’s mind when U.S. Armed Forces tracked and killed the head of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That operation was named after Kayla Mueller, a young Christian aid worker whom al-Baghdadi had personally held captive and killed. 

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 made it the policy of the U.S. government not only to condemn violations of religious freedom but to also promote and assist other governments in the promotion of the fundamental right to freedom of religion. But some administrations have chosen to turn a blind eye to certain religious liberty violations for the sake of political correctness. 

Take, for instance, the Obama- Biden administration. They appointed an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a special envoy to combat anti-Semitism. But, when it came to Nigeria, they were reticent to shine too bright a light on the religious conflict in the country because they were exceptionally cautious about offending President Buhari, who is Muslim. Despite the fact that the terrorists raiding villages were chanting “Allahu akbar,” a common Arabic phrase meaning “God is great,” the administration insisted the conflict was just between farmers and herders, not Muslims and Christians. 

Promoting religious freedom, of course, demands that countries address the insecurity of threatened religious communities. It requires talk about religion. 

Similarly, administrations sometimes opt for the “carrot” over the “stick” as the previous administration did with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China— countries that are among the world’s foremost persecutors of Christians and other religious communities (including the millions of Muslim Uyghurs in China enduring torture in concentration camps). Rather than dealing with the problem of religious persecution as a top policy priority, it was relegated to a secondary list for consideration. 

Iran, for instance, wasn’t required to release all its religious prisoners of conscience or to stop shouting “death to Israel” and “death to the United States” as a prerequisite for the failed Iran nuclear deal. And when ISIS was decimating Christian and Yazidi communities in northern Iraq, it took unanimous resolutions in both houses of Congress to persuade the Obama-Biden administration to finally acknowledge there was an actual genocide by ISIS at work in their caliphate. 

Thankfully, we still live in a country where religious freedom will be some component of foreign policy, no matter who is in power or what political party dominates the executive, judicial and legislative branches. 

Every American administration has given attention to the fundamental human right of religious freedom, but not every administration has made it a top priority in its foreign policy—like the Trump administration. ©2020 Johnnie Moore 


Johnnie Moore is president of the Congress of Christian Leaders and a commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is also the author of a newly released book: “The Next Jihad: Stop the Christian Genocide in Africa.” Views are his own.  

Photo: ©2015 Samaritan's Purse

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