By Donnelly McCleland

On 16-17 July, hundreds of members of civil society, religious leaders and survivors of religious persecution gathered in Washington DC for the second-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The event was hosted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. The purpose of the Ministerial was to build on the work that the US does in championing the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally and to forge closer cooperation with states and civil society. (Forbes)

Overview of the Ministerial

Those attending this year’s Ministerial had the opportunity to hear from survivors and families of those persecuted for their faith or belief. Testimonies included those of Christians, Muslims, Yazidis, Jews, Hindus, secular humanists and others. They spoke about the atrocities they had encountered and the devastating effect on their lives and the lives of whole communities. The accounts of persecution were all contemporary cases of such atrocities, not historical events. Although a number of survivors’ stories have been heard in isolation, the event allowed people to consider them together, and as Ewelina Ochab (for Forbes) pointed out, “to compare the similarities, the common features and the response to the treatment suffered by different religious groups from different parts of the world.” Ochab concluded: “It is a global issue, faced by all religious groups (and especially where they constitute a minority group).”

Over 100 state representatives worked together on the question of how to address the issues raised by survivors, civil society representatives and religious leaders. Pompeo announced new initiatives including the creation of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, which he explained was “the first-ever international body devoted to this specific topic”, created to “build on efforts to date and bring like-minded countries together to confront challenges of international religious freedom”. Several states also joined the US in co-sponsoring common statements of concern. Ochab highlighted one in which 20 states made a clear statement against blasphemy laws and called to “repeal blasphemy, apostasy, and other laws that impede the exercise of freedoms of expression and religion or belief, in a manner inconsistent with international law”.

Successes to date

Even US President Donald Trump’s detractors have said that his administration has produced tangible, if still limited, accomplishments in the area of religious freedom. It has been noted that the administration has successfully nudged foreign governments, such as those in Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates, to host religious freedom conferences, while Britain, Mongolia, Taiwan and Germany have all created ambassadorships to advance the cause.

Pompeo also praised the efforts of Poland regarding the proposal to establish the UN International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief on 22 August. He urged all states to commemorate the day and to make use of it to engage with the issue of freedom of religion or belief.

The State Department’s emphasis on religious freedom is timely. In June, the Pew Research Centre reported that government restrictions on religion rose from 2007 to 2017, as did violence and harassment of religious activities. The report states that 52 governments impose either “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions.

Pew Research Centre reports key findings

Pew’s tenth annual report analysing restrictions on religion around the world (by both governments and individuals or groups in society) differed from past reports because it focused on changes that had occurred over the course of a decade, from 2007 to 2017. Some key findings from the report emphasise why the above-mentioned Ministerial was so important.

The report shows that government restrictions on religion have increased globally in all four categories studied: favouritism of religious groups, general laws and policies restricting religious freedom, harassment of religious groups, and limits on religious activity. The level of religious restrictions is highest in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region in all eight categories measured by the study. The gap between the Middle East and all other regions is particularly large when it comes to government favouritism of religious groups: 19 of the 20 countries in the Middle East favour a religion (Lebanon is the exception). In addition, the average score for government harassment in the Middle East-North Africa region has increased by 72% during the period covered by the report.

It is interesting to note that the report shows that in certain categories, some of the biggest increases in religious restrictions over the past decade have occurred in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.


The Ministerial provided a platform for survivors of persecution based on religion or belief to be honoured and recognised. The US State Department made it very clear that these survivors are seen and their stories are heard, and there is a commitment to work with them to address the issue of persecution on a global level.

Joseph D’Souza, a Christian theologian, author and human and civil rights activist, commended the efforts of those involved in the Ministerial. He said that the Ministerial was “an opportunity to recalibrate bilateral relations between nations, which for too long have been driven by economic interests at the expense of human rights”. He did, however, challenge the US to apply their efforts equally on the international stage. He highlighted the disparity in dealing with Saudi Arabia – a well-documented violator of human rights and curtailer of religious freedom – and China (seen as a competitor or adversary), for example. During the Ministerial, the US emphasised China’s poor track record in terms of religious freedom but was silent on the track record of their ally, Saudi Arabia. From a Christian perspective, D’Souza suggested that if Saudi Arabia wanted to build mosques or send money to promote Islam in the US, it should have to allow churches to be built within its borders, and the US could use its relationship with the nation to work towards such an end.

However, despite the criticism, the US State Department can be commended for what it has achieved in gathering people from different religious groups, different backgrounds and different stories with one common aim: protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief for all and in so doing working to protect human dignity for everyone everywhere.


  • For nations who support religious freedom to prioritise this issue when making deals with more restrictive nations
  • For those who are persecuted for their faith to be strengthened and encouraged in their struggles
  • For Christians to lead the way in reaching out to those of different beliefs