WASHINGTON, DC – The Kansas City Chiefs are headed to the Super Bowl, one level higher than last year.
Sam Brownback pulled on Chiefs socks on Tuesday so he could use the team’s accomplishment to tell members of a growing international religious freedom movement that it’s time to level up.
Brownback represented Kansas in both houses of Congress during the 1990s, when he said it was difficult to get three or four people in Washington in one room to talk about religious freedom. On Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 1,000 people from around the world gathered for the 2023 IRF Summit in Washington, DC
“I honestly believe that this year’s gathering is going to be our escapist game, that this is the game where people look at this movement, they see the breadth of it, they see the interest in the subject, they see the importance of it in a wide range of fields, and we will play at a higher level,” he said. “… Let’s take the subject of international religious freedom to the Super Bowl (level).”
Brownback shared what the next level should look like on a day that included bipartisan concern about the violent persecution of Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious groups around the world in speeches from people ranging from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to actor Penn Badgley.
Harsh reports of past, present and possibly future genocides mixed with hopeful optimism about the difference a person and organizations from small to large can make.
“She represents a new phenomenon in human history. There is more interfaith cooperation as a normative part of ongoing social life around the world right now than at any time in human history,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, former US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom.
A coalition of 42 countries, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, is engaged in a multinational effort to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief around the world, said Blinken, US Secretary of State.
He reiterated that “freedom of religion is a core American value” and a fundamental component of US national security and foreign policy.
“Time and time again, we have seen how religious persecution can undermine stability and inclusive economic development, spiraling into violence and conflict,” Blinken said. “Meanwhile, countries that respect human rights and promote inclusion are in a better position to thrive, help their citizens and help address our most pressing global challenges. For this reason, protecting and promoting religious freedom is vital to safeguarding American national security and continues to be an essential part of our diplomacy around the world.”
Blinken said the State Department would release its 25th annual report on international religious freedom this spring. The report examines the state of religious freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories around the world and, Blinken said, illustrates how the US government has upheld the right globally.
“People of faith, like all people, deserve to live free from fear and oppression,” he said. “And with your continued cooperation, the State Department and the entire United States government will continue to vigorously defend every person’s right to worship and believe as they please.”
To those who expressed discouragement in group sessions about the incarceration and violence committed against religious believers around the world, BYU law professor Brett Scharffs also expressed hope.
“I think we should try not to get too discouraged and try to think of concrete, specific and positive things we can do, not that any of them will solve the problem once and for all, but they will help carry forward this project of creating a more humane century , more just, more peaceful than the century we have just ended,” said Scharffs, director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
He and others have explained why religious freedom is good for all people.
“Religious liberty is indeed the root root of all human rights,” Scharffs said. “If you think about our important First Amendment rights, free speech emerged from a struggle to get religious dissenters to speak. Freedom of the press emerged from a struggle to print the Bible in a vernacular that people could read. Freedom of association emerged from a struggle by religious dissidents to be able to gather and worship together. Even the right to petition the government, if you look at the historical record, a lot of those petitions came from people who were persecuted on the basis of religion.
“Without religious freedom, I fear we will eventually end up with a culture of cut-flower human rights, in which these other wonderful freedoms are separated by the tap root that gives them genuine sustenance.”
A main session and a discussion session focused on the 2018 Punta del Este Declaration on Human Dignity, with speakers stating that concern for human dignity for all people around the world can build consensus among broad groups of people.
“There is a very deep and substantial link between religious freedom… and human dignity,” said Jan Figel, who was the first special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union from 2016 to 2019.
Human dignity, added Figel, “is a precondition for a more peaceful and more humane 21st century, and we need such an ambition”.
“Human dignity is something we can reach for together and rally around, even without fully agreeing on what that means,” Scharffs said. “And that’s not that unusual. If one thinks of the great concepts of our constitutional systems – liberty, equality, non-discrimination, equal protection of the law, due process – none of them are defined in the document itself. They invite a process of unfolding, developing and making over time.
Dozens of presenters urged people around the world to take action to help those suffering from religious persecution. Signs and billboards throughout the Washington Hilton portion of the convention center shared stories of persecuted women and men.
“I was quoting Elie Wiesel, who said indifference is the sister of evil,” said Figel.
Now Figel speaks of “three brothers of evil: indifference, ignorance and fear, because if we don’t care, if we don’t know, if we don’t have the courage to say we do something, then we are commentators or even complainers”, he said.
Brownback, who also served as the United States Ambassador General for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, shared what he believes is the next level for the IRF summit, including continued serious and substantive discussions, policy proposals and networking.
“It means we are on the G-20 agenda,” he said. “It means we’re in the boardroom of these big companies as we heard in the last discussion. It means equal citizenship in Muslim-majority countries, regardless of your religious views or point of view. It means that in major religious organizations, this becomes a constant high-level issue that the organization itself pushes.
“This is what we have to do to get this agenda where it needs to be, to stop the killings, to stop the arrests, to stop the harassment so that people can freely stand up and participate in the global economy and the public or private space that they choose.
Several speakers spoke about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
“Part of that was driven by Ukraine splitting off to form its own Orthodox Church,” Brownback said. “He really drove Putin crazy about this topic and the separation of Ukraine from the Russian world, but they have every right to do it. They should be able to do that.”
A prominent Muslim leader also spoke at the summit and outlined his vision for pushing for global religious freedom.
Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, president of the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum, has joined multifaith and international efforts, including a new group called the Alliance of Virtue, to promote religious pluralism.
“This requires continuous effort and wide-ranging cooperation among religious leaders of different faiths through increasing mutual understanding among their followers and strengthening cooperation and joint initiatives among them,” bin Bayyah said in the speech read by an English translator.
Bin Bayyah played a role in the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, a statement by “more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, heads of state and scholars who are campaigning for the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.
Bin Bayyah on Tuesday called for raising awareness among policy makers of the importance and value of religious freedom.
“Followers of each religion must also turn to their sacred texts to highlight teachings that encourage coexistence and tolerance and to see their religious texts, history and heritage in new and open interpretive contexts that allow them to discover the basis for coexistence in them,” he said. added. “In this regard, they must draw attention to the inspiring stories and models of their history, the recitation of which can help spread the values of good and peace in the hearts of their adherents”.
Bayyah’s comments were praised by Pastor Bob Roberts, co-founder of the Multi-Faith Neighbors Network.
“I’m a Baptist pastor from Texas, and I love Shaykh bin Bayyah,” Roberts said. “I love Jesus; he does too. We have some differences in our theology. He won’t let me baptize him and I won’t do the Shahada. But I love this man and I want you to never forget hearing a talk with one of the top leaders Muslims of the world who promoted religious freedom. So when you hear people say that Muslims don’t promote religious freedom, they don’t know the right Muslims.”
The IRF summit continues on Wednesday. Cole Durham, founding director of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, will participate in a session titled, “What is and isn’t religious freedom?”
Other panels will include one on the importance of international religious freedom education and awareness that will include Aaron Sherinian, CEO of the Radiant Foundation and senior vice president of global reach for Deseret Management Corporation.