Former Ambassador Sam Brownback and Katrina Lantos Swett hosted the event in Washington, D.C. “We’ve got a simple model: it’s religious freedom for everybody, everywhere, all the time.”
by Marco Respinti
The concept of freedom of religion, belief, or creed (now often known under the acronym FORB) suffers from a misunderstanding. It is unpleasant, because it misrepresents religious liberty; and it is dangerous, because it unleashes the wrong battles for the wrong reasons. The misconception consists in thinking that religious freedom means that all religions are equal. They are not. From a theological, historical, and sociological point of view, this is obvious. Each group of believers regards its faith as unique and is proud of it. There is a serious danger that proclaiming that all religions are equal would fuel relativism.
In fact, advocacy for religious freedom also means denouncing the violations of it perpetrated by a religious group against others. This implies detecting the perversion of theological concepts, the twisting of genuine religious beliefs, and the ideological use of religion to distort the message of one faith to perpetrate acts of violence against other religions or secular targets. Advocacy for religious liberty can never means that religious freedom should be only for one religious group at the expense of (all) others.
What is FORB
The International Religious Freedom Summit 2022, held at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., June 28 to 30, 2022, swept away all these misconstructions and theoretical errors with assertive elegance.
The Summit was co-hosted and co-chaired by two well-known defenders of religious freedom. They are Samuel Brownback, former 46th Republican Governor of Kansas and Ambassador-at-Large of the United States for International Religious Freedom 2018–2022, now active in the same field through The Brownback Group, and Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which was founded in 2008 to continue the legacy of his late husband, Democratic Representative Thomas Peter Lantos (1928–2008). Born in Budapest as Tamás Péter Lantos, this future staunch defender of human dignity and fundamental rights survived the Holocaust thanks to heroic Swedish businessman and diplomat Raoul Wallenberg (1912–1945), who helped thousands of Jews escape Nazi persecution. Wallenberg ended up in the hands of the Soviet Army with a false charge of espionage, and disappeared in the Gulag.
Ambassador Brownback stated plainly the logic of the Summit: “We’ve got a simple model: it’s religious freedom for everybody, everywhere, all the time.” Lantos Swett constantly strengthened the benefit that religious liberty produces for everyone in the world, not only a specific group.
FORB is in fact the decisive and fundamental political right of each human person. It is decisive, because it concerns the ultimate meaning of things (for believers, of course, but also for atheists, who freely conclude that God does not exist). It is fundamental, because it generates all other basic rights (freedom of speech, press, assembly, education, etc.), giving them substance and meaning. Being a non-negotiable principle, it orients all negotiable values.
The Summit’s plenary sessions and the monographic breakout sessions were animated by a prestigious lot of panelists and hosts, as well as enlivened by the unvaluable contributions of testimonies and testimonials. Speakers included Rashad Hussain, Advisor to the US President on Religious Freedom Conditions and Policy; Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives; former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; US Senator Marco Rubio; Fiona Bruce, UK FORB Envoy; Professor Mary Ann Glendon; former Finnish minister of Interior Päivi Räsänen; Greg Mitchell, of the International Religious Freedom Roundtables; basketball celebrity Enes Kanter Freedom; Baron David Alton of Liverpool; Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute; Azra Jafari, first (now former) female Mayor in Afghanistan; Nadine Maenza, former Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF); actor Justin Baldoni; Farahnaz Ispahani, former member of the National Assembly of Pakistan; Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom; Tibetan Buddhist leader Arjia Rinpoche; Ján Figeľ, former European Commission special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion outside the EU; Mariam Ibraheem, director of Global Mobilization for Tahrir Alnisa Foundation; Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress; Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian Ambassador to the US; Ethan Gutmann, co-founder of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China; human rights lawyer David Matas; Sharifah Shakirah, founder and director of Rohingya Women Development Network; Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla, president of Guatemala; Nury Turkel, Chair of the USCIRF; and Nguyễn Dinh Thang, executive director of Boat People SOS.
The sworn enemies of FORB
The IRF Summit 2022 made quite clear that three are the sworn enemies of religious freedom today. First, terrorism in the crippled name of God, as for example in the case of ultra-fundamentalist “Islamism,” to be always carefully distinguished from Islam to avoid any claim of “Islamophobia”. From Middle East to Pakistan, from North Africa to India, Islamist terrorism hit harshly and seriously. Its victims are members of other religions, especially Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, but also several devotees of other Muslim communities that ultra-fundamentalist religious-turned-political ideology labels as “infidels,” pretending to have the monopoly of the word “Islamic.” This is notably the case of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan and Algeria, and the Hazara Shiites in Afghanistan and Pakistan, alongside other non-Muslim communities whose only sin is to live in regions where Islamist fury rules, including Baháʼís in Iran and Yazidis in Iraq and elsewhere.
Second, totalitarian ideocracies such as communism, which is by no means dead in several countries, above all in China. Before widening its scope to other parts of the world on December 1, 2020, Bitter Winter was launched on May 2, 2018, specifically to inform and alert on the crimes of the Communist hell on earth that the People’s Republic of China is, and more than half of its effort is still on that target.
The religious persecution waged on by the Chinese Communist Party was discussed at length in several panels at the IRF Summit 2022, frequently documenting and debating the fate of the Uyghurs and other Muslim communities in Mainland China, as well as Tibetans and Christians, or presenting evidence of organ harvesting—a rich and astonishing industry in the country whose victims are prisoners of conscience from Falun Gong and other groups.
Third, some states practice dirigiste policies, at least in this field, and thus pay only lip services to real religious freedom. It happens when governments and institutions promote intrusion in the lives of spiritual groups, limiting FORB in the name of some vague, or alleged, administrative, fiscal, or social policies.
A version of this, which may count for an additional fourth enemy of religious freedom, is typical of Western democracies. It is relativism. This is a cultural attitude, both philosophical and popular, of basically considering everything as having the same value, which immediately turns into giving value to nothing, thus eroding FORB. Its arms are political correctness, conformism, and the so-called “cancel culture”, as former Finnish Minister Päivi Räsänen, still on trial for having quoted the Bible, testified at the Summit.
An important piece of news emerged several times in discussions and panels through the Summit. Christians, in term of numbers, are still the most persecuted religious group in the world, a persecution some governments, international institutions and NGOs do not seem to take seriously.
“Cults,” and all that
Several groups and communities maintained booths at the Renaissance Hotel, distributing literature and informative material. One such piece of literature prompted a reflection from yours truly. It advocated FORB for “traditional religions.” I was told the definition meant no discrimination for the other religions, but nonetheless wondered, What is a “traditional” religion? An old religion? How old, and who decides it? The number of its devotees? Numbers are all relative, when considered in relation to place, context, and time. Or are “traditional” faiths those claiming to have a “tradition”? Well, all have. As a matter of fact, human time in history being relative, depending on several different measurements, criteria, and understandings, it is quite easy to consider all religions “traditional,” or for them to actually be.
Recently established groups, and yet each displaying a recognizable “tradition,” like Scientology or Tai Ji Men participated in the Summit (and this writer was also a speaker in a panel organized by the latter).
Two statements aptly sum up the meaning and value of the IRF Summit 2022. The first was uttered by Holly Folk, a scholar of religions at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, precisely during a seminar hosted by Tai Ji Men as an appendix to the major event. Folk urged to stop using the term “cult” for any religious or spiritual group. “Cult” is in fact a vague expression with no scientific ground, weaponized against unwelcome groups by those who have the power to do it.
The second point was made clear by Nadine Maenza, saying that “religious freedom is for everybody, or is for nobody.” This seems to be the next task for Greg Mitchell and his associates. In fact Mitchell announced a major structural coordination among groups advocating for religious freedom and persecuted communities with the help of the prestigious Templeton Foundation. To some extent, the IRF Summit in Washington was the trailer of this future film.