(RNS) — The third annual religious freedom ministerial, which gathers policymakers and advocates from around the globe to discuss how to protect this essential right, began Monday (Nov. 16). This two-day meeting is unlike its two predecessors in a few ways: It is being held online due to the coronavirus pandemic, and unlike the previous two, which were held in Washington and hosted by the State Department, this year’s meeting is being hosted by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The third ministerial could also be the last: The invention of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the ministerials have been touted as a singular achievement of the Trump administration, but it’s not certain that the Biden administration will continue them.
Either way, it is time to rethink U.S. religious freedom policy. In 1998, a bipartisan multifaith coalition pushed for the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, which established an IRF office in the State Department, to be led by an ambassador-at-large.
The act also created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent watchdog to report on U.S. IRF efforts. USCIRF’s reports traditionally list the worst offenders in hopes that the countries it calls out will be shamed into better behavior.
But two decades of “naming and shaming” have done little to curb religious repression around the world. Over the past four years, in addition, the human rights activists, research organizations and religious communities that make up the IRF community have sacrificed their credibility by eagerly working with the Trump administration while leveling surprisingly little criticism at the administration’s many problematic policies.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration has given significantly more institutional access to the IRF community, which felt that both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations downplayed the significance of its cause. President Donald Trump had Vice President Mike Pence announce in its first six months in office that IRF would be a priority and quickly nominated former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador-at-large, who met frequently with the community and organized the ministerials.
Former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, one of the founders of the IRF community, said Trump has been “stronger” on IRF than any other president. Johnnie Moore, a USCIRF commissioner, said the Potomac Declaration, the founding document of the ministerials, represents “religious freedom’s Magna Carta.”
But in fact the process itself changed little. It is time for that to change for two reasons.
First, it isn’t working. The hope was that “naming and shaming” would put international and domestic pressure on abusers, but according to the latest report on global religious restrictions by the Pew Research Center, infringements of religious freedom reached their highest level in 2018 since the project began.
Second, the supposedly bipartisan IRF community has tied itself so closely to the Trump administration that the movement’s credibility and integrity have been compromised. The moral authority of the IRF community lies in its ability to bring both sides of the political spectrum together, and in its readiness to criticize and praise both parties’ administrations equally.
Under Trump, the IRF community traded access for consistent support of the administration’s policies. There was little opposition to Trump’s attempted “Muslim ban,” or the cuts to refugees, many of whom are fleeing religious persecution. Members of the IRF community even praised religious freedom abusers like Egypt in line with administration policy.
The Biden administration can rectify these errors by ending “naming and shaming” and focusing instead on religious engagement. This means reestablishing the Office of Religion and Global Affairs in the State Department that was created under President Barack Obama and make it, rather than the IRF office, the center point of religion in U.S. foreign policy.
This office took a broader approach to global religion than the IRF office, helping to engage with religious actors on a variety of issues. Organizations like the Institute for Global Engagement have had great success in establishing trust between governments and their societies to expand religious freedom. In Vietnam, IGE promoted dialogue between the government and religious freedom groups, leading to significant improvements in that country.
To restore IRF’s integrity, incoming President Joe Biden and his foreign policy aides also need to look beyond the community that has become too closely tied to the current administration. This starts with choosing an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and staff that have independence from the movement.
This will likely invite opposition from IRF advocates, as happened when Obama appointed Suzan Johnson Cook as his first ambassador-at-large. Some of the concern had to do with her lack of diplomatic experience, but many IRF advocates I talked to at the time were upset she did not come from their ranks. Any complaints about choosing an outsider now should be answered by reminding the community of their silence under Trump.
The Biden administration should pick an ambassador who is not afraid to criticize U.S. policy and who takes a broader view of IRF promotion than “naming and shaming.”
Religious persecution is widespread around the world, and America needs to act decisively to stop it. We can only do so if we assure countries around the world and activists here at home that we are pursuing the cause fairly and without favor.
(Peter Henne is an associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)