Hundreds of people of various faiths from around the world attended the opening day of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C., which seeks to raise awareness about global efforts to ensure freedom of religion and halt religious persecution.
The two-day annual event includes speakers who faced religious persecution, government officials who work to promote religious freedom globally, and human rights activists and other experts who opined on incidents of persecution — as well as religious freedom victories — in recent times.
Some of the speakers on the first day included a Nicaraguan priest who was imprisoned during the regime of President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on the Catholic Church, ambassadors who worked on religious freedom efforts, and experts who discussed ongoing violations of religious liberty in the Middle East, China, Ukraine, Nigeria, and other parts of the world.
The Nicaraguan priest, whose identity was hidden and voice altered by a voice changer for safety reasons, was arrested during the government crackdown on political dissent within the Catholic Church. The Ortega regime shut down Catholic schools and media outlets, and arrested or expelled more than 120 priests and nuns.
“I pray to the Lord that the voice of this summit on human rights and religious freedom be raised and heard by Christians around the world, so that they may put pressure on their governments and deny financing that, far from serving the health and well-being of Nicaraguans, keep an illegitimate government that murders its own people in power,” the anonymous priest told the crowd.
Many of the panels focused on the intersection of foreign policy and religious freedom.
These included a discussion about minority religions — such as Christians, Jews, and Yazidis — facing persecution throughout the Middle East. It included discussions of the religious and ethnic violence ongoing in Nigeria, which has led to the deaths of more than 50,000 Christians in the last decade and a half. It also included discussions about China’s forced internment of Uyghur Muslims and the 2021 United States law that prohibited the import of goods made in Chinese forced labor camps.
Panelists discussed the religious persecution caused by recent military conflicts, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the territory of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh.
Some of the panelists suggested that the promotion of religious freedom around the world should be a major priority in Western governments’ foreign policies.
“We have the responsibility to care for those who can’t [follow the religion] they believe freely,” Robert Rehak, the ambassador and special envoy for Holocaust, Interfaith Dialogue, and Freedom of Religion in the Czech Republic, said in the opening panel on the topic “What is IRF, and what is it not?”
Rashad Hussain, the American ambassador-at-large for the Office of International Religious Freedom, echoed the same sentiment, saying the U.S. government must “make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to protect that freedom for everyone in the world.”
“It’s absolutely an essential part of our foreign policy,” Hussain added.
Societies that are built on religious freedom, according to Hussain, “are more likely to be safe and prosperous,” but societies that fail to protect religious freedom are “less likely to be stable,” he said.
Former Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback argued that promoting religious freedom through foreign policy is “essentially about human dignity, which is the core of all of it” and that it needs to become a stronger priority.
“I don’t think it’s that difficult,” Brownback said, “but you [have] got to make it a priority.”
On the second day of the summit, House Speaker Mike Johnson is scheduled to speak. There will also be panels on challenges that religious minorities are facing in India along with persecution in China and worrisome trends in Latin America.
The 2023 Religious Freedom in the World report, published by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, found that more than half of the global population lives in a country with severe religious persecution. It also found dangerous trends in Western countries, where religious freedom has increasingly been threatened.