Global Summit on Religious Persecution Provides Opportunity to Combat Abuse


(RNS) – Nigerian Christians Murdered During Worship. China persecutes Uyghur Muslims. The Taliban force women to wear the burqa. Russia bombs Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

Next month the UK government is hosting a global summit in London to discuss ways to address these and other cases of religious persecution. It is the third in-person meeting since the United States’ effort began in 2018. In the three years since delegates last met in-person, conditions around the world have not improved as observers continue to document alarming levels of intolerance by governments and societal actors .

Genocides of Muslims are taking place in authoritarian countries like China and Myanmar, while Christians in Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq face terrorist attacks (along with their own oppression in China and Myanmar). Extremists in India, Sri Lanka and Egypt are harassing minorities, while Afghanistan and Iran are attacking minorities and targeting Muslims who challenge their theocratic rule.

Russia bombs religious sites in Ukraine while jailing Jehovah’s Witnesses at home for ‘terrorism’ Freedom of thought remains restricted throughout the Middle East, where Baha’i, Yazidi, Ahmadi, Hindu and Humanist communities face constant dangers. Antisemitism and Islamophobia continue to plague North America and Europe.

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In short, the timing of the London Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief could not be better. The British thankfully agreed to host after in-person meetings in Washington in 2018 and 2019 and a virtual meeting convened by Poland in 2020. Oppressors and authoritarians certainly coordinate with any sector of society that respects values, so rights-respecting nations should also have freedom of conscience and belief in concert.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, a long-time human rights defender who holds a ministerial portfolio in the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, stated that the “Conference in London will bring together ministers, but more importantly other representatives of government, faith and belief, group leaders, and most importantly, from civil society.” He grounded these discussions on the real-world impact of persecution, noting that the conference “will hear directly from survivors about the impact that persecution has had on them, their lives, and their communities.” .

A Ukrainian soldier takes photos of a damaged church after shelling in a residential neighborhood in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Fiona Bruce, the UK Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief and acting Member of the House of Commons, said in an email that “the official ministerial conference will be attended by over 500 delegates”, with hundreds more attending “well over 100 civilians” at society events in central London and across the country.”

The power of gatherings like this is to bring all stakeholders together to advance religious freedom. Bruce and her team strive to engage diplomats, parliamentarians, civil society representatives and religious leaders towards a common goal. Such partnerships can make a difference when they work strategically and with relentless commitment to long-term change. If one group is missing or falling short, it can weaken the entire platform for effective advocacy.

However, as I learned in shaping the first two State Department conferences, words alone are not enough. Government statements denouncing state-sponsored persecution should be accompanied by firm commitments to increased resources to support local lawyers, plans to rescue those persecuted for their faith, and coordinated sanctions against perpetrators. The London meeting can make a difference for human rights by spurring consequences for abuse and help for survivors.

As Bruce said in an email, the meeting has the attention of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will host a reception for delegates, and Secretary of State Liz Truss, who will deliver a keynote address on the first day of the meeting.

Because of my two decades of service to the US government, such high-level engagement is critical and will hopefully encourage Secretary of State participation. Without such support, events like this have limited impact. In addition, it is important to ensure continuity, so other nations will be needed to host the next ministerial conference in 2023 or 2024.

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The real test of these events, however, is not whether meetings happen or who attends them, but whether conditions change for the better. As countries emerge from the pandemic, rights-respecting nations, civil society organizations and religious groups must work together to heal the pandemic of persecution sweeping the globe.

Knox Thames.  courtesy photo

Knox Thames. courtesy photo

Millions are praying for their success.

(Knox Thames is a former Special Envoy for Religious Minorities at the US State Department, serving during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book about ending the persecution in the 21st century. Follow him on Twitter @KnoxThames. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of the Religion News Service.)


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