A new International Religious Freedom Alliance with 27 member states was announced on Wednesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo said that the alliance would include “like-minded partners who treasure, and fight for, international religious freedom for every human being.”
According to the alliance’s official description, it “will 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.”
Twenty-seven countries have signed on as members of the alliance—Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, The Gambia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Togo, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
“Together, we say that freedom of religion or belief is not a Western ideal, but truly the bedrock of societies,” Pompeo stated on Wednesday, adding that it is outlined in the alliance’s Declaration of Principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The alliance was necessitated by a number of developments, a senior State Department official explained at a Wednesday press conference.
The last several decades have seen “a deterioration” in human rights, he said, and that the “fundamental” right of religious freedom—"one that you can really build and expand the other human rights off of”—needed to be re-prioritized, the official said on Wednesday, citing the continued loss of life to religious persecution.
A similar reason was given for the creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights last summer, an advisory commission comprised of human rights experts from a variety of faith and intellectual traditions. “Human-rights advocacy has lost its bearings and become more of an industry than a moral compass,” Pompeo wrote in an op-ed explaining the creation of the commission.
The alliance would be “consensual,” meaning that joint actions taken by some countries would not bind all member states to join.
Some of the principles underpinning the alliance include: the condemnation of violence on account of one’s religion or beliefs; opposition to laws that hinder religious practice such as “blasphemy laws” and state registration of religious groups; support for prisoners of conscience; protection of religious sites; engagement with civil society; the promotion of religious literacy and freedom of religion.
The member states pledged to abide by and promote those principles, and use a variety of actions to do so.
Such actions could include public diplomacy, promotion of interfaith dialogue, support for victims of religious persecution, “targeted sanctions against perpetrators as appropriate,” and training of law enforcement.
By way of example, the State Department official pointed to a joint event, hosted by three member nations, held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September to draw international attention to the plight of Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
The official was “hesitant” to list joint sanctions as an action that could be taken by member countries, as “many countries look at us thinking we’re just willing to go there immediately, and a lot of countries don’t want to do that.”
The State Department was questioned about the administration’s expansion of the travel ban to include Burma—one country where many Rohingya Muslims have been driven from their homes and persecuted for their ethnic and religious status.
The Trump administration, the official said, is trying to stop persecution of religion, as people “shouldn’t have to leave their country to practice their faith.” Victims of persecution could receive safe haven in the U.S., the official said, giving the case of Asia Bibi.