Continuing its mission to reduce global restrictions on religion, the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable met this month in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. In 2014, 74 percent of the world’s population lived in countries with a high or very high overall level of restriction on religion, down slightly from 77 percent in 2013 and 76 percent in 2012 (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).
Attending the IRF Roundtable were some 75 participants from civil society and government, including representatives of religious, secular and human rights organizations and senior staff of the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Helsinki Commission, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the International Religious Freedom Caucus, and U.S. Congress.
The IRF Roundtable is an informal group of individuals who gather regularly to discuss IRF issues on a non-attribution basis, where participants speak freely in sharing ideas and information and proposing joint advocacy actions to address specific international religious freedom issues and problems. In response to various participant-led initiatives regarding the protection and promotion of freedom of religion, conscience and belief in the United States and abroad, all participants have the opportunity to self-select into coalitions.
The Roundtable was started more than six years ago with 10 participants meeting every two months. Over the years average attendance has grown to some 70 participants. Its purpose is to engage the U.S. government to make religious freedom a foreign policy and national security priority; to engage civil society leaders, other governments that promote religious freedom, and multilateral, intergovernmental institutes to coordinate joint advocacy efforts; and to engage in meaningful dialogues with governments that restrict religious freedom.
A multifaith International Religious Freedom Roundtable letter signed by 72 organizations and individuals was sent to U.S. Senate leaders in October urging passage of HR 1150.
The primary agenda item at this month’s meeting was the need to pass into law by the end of the year HR 1150, the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom act of 2016. HR 1150, sponsored by Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), passed out of the House of Representatives by voice vote on May 16. Now it is up to the Senate to consider and pass the bill so it can be sent to President Obama for his signature. A multifaith International Religious Freedom Roundtable letter signed by 72 organizations and individuals was sent to U.S. Senate leaders in October. The letter read in part:
The passage and implementation of HR 1150 will result in a strengthened International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), as well as the integration of this foundational human right into U.S. foreign policy and national security strategies. In so doing, the United States will send a clear and urgent message regarding the inherent dignity of every human being, while advancing global security in the fight against persecution, religious extremism and terrorism. This legislation is consistent with the best of our values, and has the added benefit of practically protecting our national interests as well.
Other legislation discussed included House Resolution 290, calling for the global repeal of blasphemy laws; S. 284, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act; and a package of bills introduced to follow up on the Obama Administration’s formal designation of genocide in the Middle East—House Concurrent Resolution 152, expressing the view of Congress that the United States and the international community should support the Republic of Iraq and its people to recognize a province in the Nineveh Plain region, consistent with lawful expressions of self-determination by its indigenous peoples; HR 5961, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act; and HR 5974, Coptic Churches Accountability Act.
Finally, Catholics, Evangelical Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Scientologists, as well as secular leaders, shared vital information about advocacy on behalf of Syrian and Iraqi religious minorities, and religious freedom situations in Iraq, Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Sudan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, which are resulting in violations of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Passage and implementation of HR 1150 will result in a strengthened International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), as well as the integration of this foundational human right into U.S. foreign policy and national security strategies.
The IRF Roundtable is open to individuals of all faiths or of no faith, working together to create a context where people can peacefully live with their deepest differences. Participants represent a broad diversity of theological views and political positions, but all agree on the importance of international religious freedom, recognizing that it strengthens cultures and provides the foundation for stable democracies and their components, including civil society, economic growth, and social harmony. As such, it is an effective counterterrorism weapon, as it preemptively undermines religious extremism.