On June 15, 1215, in a field called Runnymede on the banks of the River Thames, the English barons and the Archbishop of Canterbury witnessed the affixing of the seal of the King of England to the Magna Carta. King John, having lost Normandy to France and facing a French claim to his throne, as well as having suffered a damaging dispute with Pope Innocent III over ecclesiastical elections, found himself forced to yield to the demands of his barons to secure his throne.
This week, 806 years later, in the shadow of Big Ben, the UK Foreign Office hosted a fourth ministerial meeting focusing on religious freedom, and the first such in-person meeting to take place in outside the United States. A ministerial meeting is an official meeting of foreign ministers to discuss a matter of general interest. The conference brought government officials, religious leaders and activists from around the world to London to raise cases of persecution based on religion or belief.
While attending this gathering, two harsh realities emerged. First, governments around the world are perpetrating horrible persecutions against believers. But second, it is clear that there is a dedicated community of people from all walks of life who tirelessly lobby their governments to stand up for victims of religious persecution.
The ministerial sessions included a litany of reports on states around the world and their oppression of believers. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has some two million Uyghurs in concentration camps to advance the party’s thinly veiled goal of cleaning up the Uyghur Muslim region, which it sees as a threat to its ability to exercise total control over the people of Xinjing. . Christians and Falun Gong are also targeted for their faith by the CCP.
In Pakistan, the government uses the judicial system to enforce draconian anti-blasphemy laws against non-Muslims. In Afghanistan, the new religious Taliban regime ruthlessly hunts down members of minority religious groups like the Hazara Muslims.
In Nigeria, Christians who simply want to pray on Sundays are the target of organized radical Islamic terrorism which the country’s government seems unwilling to combat effectively. Even in the West, a place where religious freedom is considered safe, a member of Finland’s parliament has been taken to court by his own government for publicly declaring his orthodox Christian beliefs on gender and marriage.
In fact, violations of religious freedom by governments are so pervasive that it is much simpler to list governments that do not violate than to list those that do. Yet, while governments are often the worst perpetrators of religious persecution, governments can also be called upon to protect and promote religious freedom. Indeed, without the support of the government, this fundamental right would be unable to resist the powers that wish to limit it. But state power will not do this naturally, it must be made to defend this right.
Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development, Elizabeth Truss, British Foreign Secretary, addressed the ministerial meeting on Tuesday, invoking the first clause of the Magna Carta, which states:
FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and have her rights undiminished, and her liberties undiminished.
This first extraordinary clause is an example of how a concerted effort can be used to bend government institutions to protect religious liberty. The ministerial meeting in London this week is an example of this in action. It was not a project eagerly adopted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rather the opposite; it was a handful of dedicated parliamentarians and a small army of civil society advocates who secured the Prime Minister’s support and carried the project through. This demonstrates yet again that governments must be influenced to protect religious freedom.
Similarly, it was not the goodwill of an American president that created the position of international ambassador for religious freedom in the State Department, but an act of Congress. The State Department had never held an international religious freedom ministerial meeting when Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Sam Brownback asked their staff to organize and host the first in 2018. The second in 2019 was Foggy Bottom’s biggest human rights event ever.
The United Nations had never held a session focused on religious freedom as part of the General Assembly before President Trump decided to hold such a session, much to the chagrin of many bureaucrats. There is now a multilateral alliance of 36 countries to protect and promote freedom of religious belief around the world. Such a partnership has only been reluctantly accepted by international institutions and members of the international system.
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It is the action of critical individuals, guided by a commitment to freedom of conscience, that is necessary to promote and protect religious freedom.
It has been a long journey for many in the international religious liberty movement, from being generally ignored to having a seat at the foreign policy table. It took champions in Congress like Representative Frank Wolf, with the vision to build government infrastructure through legislation. It took bold scholars and activists like Katrina Lantos Swett, Mary Ann Glendon and Robby George serving on the United States’ International Religious Freedom Commission, a watchdog body established by the government to report on the state of religious freedom around the world, to make the Commission a powerful voice in the US government on behalf of the persecuted. There is now an apparatus within the US government and the international community that collectively elevates this fundamental right.
Members of the international system, much more happy to talk about sustainable development, find themselves confronted with concerns of conscience. The Brazilian government recently announced that it would host a ministerial meeting in 2023, demonstrating that another government has been moved to support religious freedom. Although we will never reach utopia in this world, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was right to see a dividing line between the signing of Magna Carta on the banks of the Thames so many years ago and the gathering this week at the edge of this same river.