The Canary in the Coal Mine: The IRF Summit and Protecting Religious Freedom in Our World Today

The Canary in the Coal Mine: The IRF Summit and Protecting Religious Freedom in Our World Today February 5, 2023

The Canary in the Coalmine: The IRF Summit and Protecting Religious Freedom in Our World Today

This past Wednesday, the 3rd annual International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington DC came to a close, gathering leaders and experts from around the world to discuss the current state of religious freedom in the US and abroad and the steps that need to be taken to promote and protect this fundamental liberty. Presenters this year included Samantha Power – USAID Adminstrator; Newt Gingrich – former U.S. Speaker of the House and his wife Callista, both ambassadors to the Holy See; His Beatitude Theophilus III – Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah – President of the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum; Hamza Yusuf Hanson – President of Zaytuna College, Berkeley; and many more. Despite its just three-year existence, it also received a rather long and personal video address from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

(Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah, President of the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum speaks through an interpreter at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit 2023 (Travis Henry))

Definitions Matter

Religious Freedom, a term which can have many different meanings, but most basically is the right to hold the religion or belief of ones choosing, is considered a conscience right, – meaning, it protects the right of individuals to act in accordance with their own beliefs, values, and principles, without interference from the government or other external entities. This includes the right to follow one’s religious beliefs or not to hold to any particular religion or creed, as well as the right to refuse to participate in actions that conflict with those beliefs or lack thereof.


Conscience rights often involve sensitive issues such as religion, ethics, and morality, and can sometimes be at odds with the laws and policies of a particular society. For example, an individual may have a conscience-based objection to participating in certain medical procedures, eg. performing an abortion, or taking a certain vaccine, or to providing certain services, such as catering a same-sex wedding.


In many countries, conscience rights are protected by law, and individuals and organizations are allowed to act in accordance with their conscience, provided that their actions do not violate the rights of others.


Needless to say, it is always important to balance the right to act in accordance with one’s beliefs with other important considerations, such as public safety, health, and the rights of others. Achieving this balance requires careful consideration and a commitment to protecting the rights and freedoms of all individuals.


Religious Freedom, an obvious corollary of conscience rights as well as a fundamental human right, is enshrined in prominent documents such as the U.S. Constitution, The Catholic Church’s Dignitatis Humanae of Vatican II, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In such a global recognition of religious freedom, it’s illustrated how crucial it is for individuals to be able to express their religious beliefs freely and without fear of discrimination or persecution.

Human Rights Abuses Continue to Occur

However, despite this recognition, religious freedom continues to be violated in many parts of the world. In some countries, individuals are punished for practicing their religion or expressing their beliefs, while in others, religious minorities are marginalized and excluded from social, political, and economic life. A prime example of this is in China, regarding the Muslim Uyghurs, whose treatment has rightly been decried by countries around the world including the U.S., as a modern-day holocaust.


The international community has a crucial role to play in promoting religious freedom for all. And this includes holding wayward governments accountable for violating the rights of their citizens and by supporting organizations and individuals working to protect and promote religious freedom, some of these organizations include March for the Martyrs and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.


This recent summit in Washington D.C. was an important step in this direction, with leaders and experts displaying unity and collaboration in discussing the challenges and opportunities for advancing religious freedom globally, along with various calls to action.

Pluralism and Free Speech

One of the key themes discussed at the summit was the importance of a better understanding of pluralism, which is essential for promoting peaceful coexistence and stability in societies. The speakers emphasized the need to foster a culture of respect for diversity, in which individuals can express their beliefs freely and without fear of persecution.


Another important topic discussed at the summit was the impact of technology on religious freedom. One of the sponsors of the summit was the controversial big-tech firm, Meta (formerly Facebook). The irony of this tech giant being a sponsor was not missed on many of those asking questions and making statements during Q&A following some of the talks. The rise of digital technologies has created new opportunities for the expression of religious beliefs and practices, but in some cases, it has also been culpable of suppressing free speech and views, on the ambiguous grounds of “violating community standards”. It has been obvious to many though that in plenty of cases this has been merely an excuse to suppress views that don’t align with the company’s own political leanings and results in depriving users of their rights to freedom of speech and press. The speakers at this summit stressed the need to address these negative consequences of technology on religious freedom and to promote responsible use of digital platforms.

(From left to right: Nick Fish – President of American Atheists; Imam Talib Shareef of the Nation’s Mosque; Dr. Robert Destro, Professor of Law at CUA; Cole Durham of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School; Hamza Yusuf Hanson – President of Zaytuna College, Berkeley)

The Secular and the Sacred

One other interesting discussion that came up between a panel of speakers which included Dr. Robert Destro – senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute and Professor of Law at Catholic University of America, Nick Fish – President of American Atheists, and Cole Durham – Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School was the relationship of the secular to the sacred. This relationship between secularization and religion can vary depending on the context. In some societies, secularization and religion coexist peacefully and even complement each other. Many who study Classics or Liberal Arts are the first to point out that secularization, as it is originally conceived is actually a Christian notion. Historians such as Tom Holland (not the actor) have written extensively about this. His book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World is a prime example of scholarship that illustrates just this point. And indeed prominent religious figures and intellectuals and, such as the late Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Jurgen Habermas have reaffirmed a similar or at least compatible such view, – as opposed to a religious integralism – in their famous dialogue – The Dialectics of Secularization. In such societies, individuals are free to practice their religion and express their beliefs, while the state remains neutral so as to respect the pluralism in society, and can even refer to religion for moral and ethical guidance, yet does not interfere in religious matters.


However, secularization can be incompatible with religion in other societies, particularly when the state seeks to suppress or control religious expression and beliefs. Even in places where religious freedom has been enshrined in the constitution of the land, there have been recent violations of this free expression. And so figures who hold influence – journalists, heads of state, etc. need to recognize that legal recognition does not always equal corresponding congruent practice, and these figures should actively seek to address where injustices occur.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Religious freedom in many ways also serves as a litmus test for the respect of other human rights in a society. A society that respects religious freedom is more likely to respect other fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, association, press, and assembly. On the other hand, a society that violates religious freedom is more likely to violate other human rights as well.


Religious freedom can also serve as a canary in a coal mine for other human rights, in that its violation can often be an early indicator of broader human rights abuses. When religious freedom begins to wane, other rights are often soon to follow, including the rights of other minority groups, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.


It is therefore important for governments, civil society organizations, and the international community to closely monitor the state of religious freedom and take action to address any violations. This not only protects the rights of individuals to express their religious beliefs freely, but it also serves as an important indicator of the overall respect for human rights in a society.


The free press plays a crucial role in promoting and protecting religious freedom by serving as a watchdog, monitoring the state of religious freedom and reporting on any violations. A free press helps to bring attention to the struggles of religious minorities and encourages the government and the international community to take action to address these violations.

(Protestors in Iran hold up photos of Mahsa Amina to protest her killing by the Morality Police – a state sponsored group of religious-law enforcement)

The Role of the Global Community

The global community can also form strong coalitions like it has very publicly done with the tragic ongoing situation in Ukraine against Russia’s onslaught, but also to preserve freedom of religion in countries where it is under threat by working together to raise awareness about religious freedom and to hold governments accountable for violating the rights of their citizens. This can be done through advocacy, diplomacy, and supporting organizations and individuals working on the ground to promote and protect authentic religious freedom. A prime example of where this could be helpful today is in Iran, since they are already undergoing a state of revolt against the government, seeing massive protests, and rising up to call for greater recognition of human rights following the tragic killing of Mahsa Amini by the state’s “Morality Police” following a state-enforced, supposed religious dress-code violation, after her Hijab was seen to be less than perfectly situated to cover her hair. In a state with greater religious freedom, this “violation” would no doubt have been seen as more a matter of the internal forum or conscience, and less related to matters of governance. All morality-based religions can fall victim to this  type of intrusive moral policing, not just Islam. Needless to say, a right understanding of religious freedom serves as a bulwark against this  counterproductive sort of “inquisition”.

The Role of Religious Freedom in the U.S. and its major symbols

The upcoming 250th anniversary of the United States is a significant event for religious freedom and is an opportunity to reflect on the country’s history of religious tolerance and pluralism. People, institutions, and organizations across the country are preparing for this event by highlighting the importance of religious freedom and promoting religious tolerance and pluralism along with heightened awareness of the distinct claims of the various religions, including in relation to one another.

(Arial view of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – America’s First Cathedral, located in Baltimore, Maryland)

America’s First Cathedral – the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located in Baltimore, Maryland, is ground zero for religious freedom in the United States and for that reason is a widely recognized symbol of this freedom and will certainly also be taking part in this celebration of America’s founding. As the first Catholic Cathedral in North America, the Basilica represents the importance of religious belief and the right of individuals to express their beliefs freely. In fact, its construction was the fruit of colonials seeking to found a state (Maryland) which would offer Catholics the freedom to practice their faith without persecution by their Protestant counterparts.


In conclusion, preserving religious freedom is an important responsibility of the global community and requires the collaboration of governments, civil society organizations, and individuals. The free press and events such as the upcoming 250th anniversary of the United States can help to raise awareness about the importance of religious freedom and inspire action to protect this fundamental human right.


Religious freedom is not only a fundamental human right, however, but it is also essential for promoting peace, stability, and social cohesion in societies. Local and international communities must continue to work together to promote and protect religious freedom for all individuals.

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