The U.S. State Department’s launch of a global coalition to defend religious freedom is a “good first step” in countering a mounting wave of repression against both the faithful and those who choose not to worship, David Curry, the CEO of the Christian aid group Open Doors, told Breitbart News.
Curry, whose charity focuses on helping oppressed Christians and tracks persecution trends through the annual publication of its World Watch List, added that religious persecution is “the issue of our time” and present in nearly every conflict area in the world.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the establishment of the International Religious Freedom Alliance this month, a coalition of 27 countries around the globe that have committed to a set of principles that include both the respect for the freedom of conscience of their citizens and the advocacy for religious freedom abroad. On the list are nations representing North and South America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including Senegal, Ukraine, Israel, Albania, and Brazil, among others.
“The formation of the Alliance marks the first time in history an international coalition has come together at a national leadership level to push the issue of religious freedom forward around the world. Egregious perpetrators of religious persecution have long operated with impunity,” Pompeo said in a statement announcing the move. “The Alliance will unify powerful nations and leverage their resources to stop bad actors and advocate for the persecuted, the defenseless, and the vulnerable. The threats to religious freedom are global. They require global participation and global solutions.”
The principles the alliance has signed onto include respecting international law on individual freedom of conscience, specifically, “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, including the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and the freedom to change faith.”
Given that many of these nations – the United Kingdom, Colombia, and others – are not locations considered significantly dangerous for people of faith or those defying the majority belief system, perhaps more powerful is the commitment in the list of principles to publicly demand respect for religious freedom.
“The Alliance intends to advocate for freedom of religion or belief for all, which includes the right of individuals to hold any belief or none, to change religion or belief and to manifest religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in worship, observance, practice, and teaching,” the text of the Declaration of Principles reads. “The Alliance is intended to bring together senior government representatives to discuss actions their nations can take together to promote respect for freedom of religion or belief and protect members of religious minority groups worldwide.”
“Every country on that list could still make progress on protecting religious freedom, all these founding members, but I think what’s hopeful is that these countries have agreed on a framework to form these core principles and I think that the discussion of it and the raising of the standard is a good first step,” Curry told Breitbart News in an interview Thursday. “I think it highlights the fact that this is a growing concern of many countries around the world. There’s a continued restriction and intolerance towards not just the practice of Christianity but any faith around the world. This is the issue of our time as it relates to a lot of chaos around the world.”
Curry noted that religious intolerance is common in conflicted, impoverished, or authoritarian regions of the world, nearly always accompanying other human rights atrocities.
“I think governments in the past have seen religious liberty as maybe a partisan issue. I would hope that people are beginning to see – with all these crises around the world, ISIS, al-Qaeda, what’s happening in Burkina Faso – they’re beginning to see the role that intolerance has played in other larger social issues,” he explained.
“I’ve always said that religious freedom is the canary in the coal mine,” he continued. “It’s the first thing you’ll notice when something is going amiss in areas about ready to tip over into chaos, whether that’s northern Nigeria or Iraq and Syria or anywhere else. … Where you have an area where there’s mayhem … you will always have religious liberty issues.”
Curry predicted that the alliance’s efforts would, in the long term, convince some governments that have remained neutral or negative on religious freedom to shift their priorities and defending the individual rights of their citizens. World governments, he added, have a responsibility to defend these freedoms and strip their laws of discrimination based on faith or lack thereof.
“Civil society has a role to play, government has a role to play in creating environments where people can practice their faith or choose not to practice a faith without fear of pressure, oppression, being imprisoned, being attacked by other groups,” Curry said. “We need civil government to pass the kinds of laws that allow people to change their mind or change their faith if they so choose as an adult to do that, or to decide that they want to be an atheist – I think these are things that civil government has to do.”
According to the 2020 edition of Open Doors’ World Watch List, 260 million Christians are currently living under “high levels of oppression” – facing war, terrorism, discriminatory laws, and mob violence, among other threats. North Korea, a totalitarian communist state that forces citizens to worship dictator Kim Jong-un and his family, topped the list as the world’s most repressive country for Christians. The list noted increasing levels of violence against Christians in much of Africa – particularly Burkina Faso, which did not appear on the 2019 list – and a decrease in Iraq and Syria as a result of the collapse of the Islamic State.