Religious liberty advocates gathered at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, on Monday to mark the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and to release a report documenting the people advancing the cause around the world.
Former Congressman Frank Wolf, a Republican who represented Virginia in the House for 35 years and sponsored the legislation, made a heartfelt plea to the packed room of religious liberty advocates, including past and present members of the United States Commission on International Freedom (USCIF).
“Because you in this room are knowledgeable about international religious liberty there’s no need to tell you how bad things are around the world,” Wolf said.
Wolf cited the Bible’s New Testament, where Jesus spoke of the prophet Isaiah anointing him to minister to the poor, the imprisoned, and the oppressed. He also cited President Ronald Reagan, who Wolf said was a leader on religious liberty issues.
“President Reagan said that the words in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were a covenant not only with those gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787 but a covenant with the people around the world,” Wolf said, then referring to what the covenant means today.
“A covenant with a Catholic nun or the Catholic priest in Iraq,” Wolf said. “A covenant with a Protestant pastor jailed in China. A covenant with the Uighur Muslim child in a Chinese re-education camp.”
“A covenant with the Nigerian Chibok girls who are still at this very moment we are here being held by Boko Haram,” Wolf said.
“Waiting for the right time to act is not an option,” Wolf said. “This is the right time to act.”
Wolf evoked the Bible again, naming the men who faced prison because of their faith, including Joesph, Daniel, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul.
“As we speak out and engage on behalf of the persecuted are we willing to risk imprisonment for what we believe?” Wolf said.
At the very least, Wolf said, we should be willing to put a real face on religious persecution.
“I believe that we and the rest will find ourselves better able to count the cost as it were the more intimately acquainted we are with our brothers and sisters abroad,” Wolf said.
“And if we know their stories, if we weep at their wounds, if we intercede on their behalf through prayer and advocacy I am confident we will find ourselves shaped by the courage,” Wolf said.
“And if we’re cleared-eyed about the times in which we live, I believe these encounters will make our own faith more robust and strengthen us for the days ahead,” Wolf said, his voice cracking.
Both Wolf and Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, did offer concrete advice on how the country and Americans can make a difference going forward.
Wolf spoke of the new Congress being seated in 2019 and the need for the Act to be reauthorized and the importance of educating lawmakers about the importance of the issue. He also encouraged lawmakers to “strengthen” the law to make it even more impactful.
Wolf also called for establishing a religious freedom defense fund that could pay for legal services for dissidents around the world.
Brownback said religious liberty is a priority of the Trump administration.
“This is a top foreign policy issue for this administration,” Brownback said. “This administration is pushing this hard; pushing it aggressively.”
Brownback cited the recent release of American pastor Andrew Brunson who had been held in Turkey for two years before the Trump administration levied tariffs and pressured the NATO ally for his release. He also noted that Pew Research Center data shows 80 percent of the world population experience “significant persecution and lack of religious freedom.”
“The Iron Curtain of religious persecution needs to come down,” Brownback said.
Wolf, who got a standing ovation after his remarks, concluded by tying in the fight for religious freedom with the Christmas season.
“Advent is the season of expectant waiting for the coming of Jesus who cared about the poor, the imprisoned and the oppressed,” Wolf said.
“My prayer this Advent season is that the suffering church will no longer suffer alone; that we would stand with them and we would seek a day when in the words of the beloved Christmas hymn that we all will be singing — Oh Holy Night — all oppression shall cease,” Wolf said.
You can read the International Religious Freedom Act retrospective report here.
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