The Voices of Religious Freedom

6 minutes read time
A Palestinian Greek orthodox Christian woman lights a candle as she attends the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza City.
A Palestinian Greek orthodox Christian woman lights a candle as she attends the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza City.

The Voices of Religious Freedom

In celebration of International Religious Freedom Day on January 16th, the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. Department of State hosted a series of Religious Freedom panel discussions on Facebook Live. Read on to learn more about the conversations and to view the events.

Modeling Interfaith Actions and Outcomes

In the first discussion, entitled “Modeling Interfaith Actions and Outcomes,” the Deputy Director of the IRF Office at the U.S. Department of State, Daniel Wright, spoke with Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, Director of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, Reverend Susan Hayward, a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Dr. Stefan Buchwald, Director of the German Information Center at the German Embassy in D.C.  Dr. Buchwald discussed the efforts of the German Embassy in D.C. to promote interfaith action through various academic exchanges and internship programs, highlighting the “House of One” in Berlin. Dr. Elsanousi, among other topics, discussed the importance of gender equality and representation in interfaith action programs and also in international religious freedom and genocide prevention initiatives. Reverend Susan Hayward discussed the importance of making sure that interfaith action programs include a wide range of leaders, especially community and other local leaders, as many programs tend to focus solely on gaining support from leaders of major institutions or governments. While it remains extremely important for institutions, such as the U.S. Department of State, to actively engage in interfaith dialogue and action, the speakers reinforced that individuals, civil society organizations, and faith communities should challenge themselves to participate in similar interfaith efforts in their own communities, focusing on concrete action and outcomes.

Countering the Rising Intolerance in Europe

In the second week of the Religious Freedom series, Ms. Alyssa Weiner, senior associate for the Department of International Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, Dr. Ulrich Mans, Political and Legal Advisor on Human Rights and UN Affairs at the European Union, and Dr. Robert Williams, Director of the Office of International Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, participated in a discussion called “Countering the Rising Intolerance in Europe,” hosted by Stacy Bernard Davis, Senior Advisor for Combating Anti-Semitism and Europe and Eurasia Unit Chief in DRL/IRF. Dr. Mans highlighted some of the work done by the European Union, such as the Code of Conduct to prevent and counter the spread of illegal hate speech online. The latest implementation report shows that there is a significant increase in the amount of reported content that is being removed within 24 hours. Dr. Mans explained that the EU was committed to further improving these mechanisms and hold biased individuals accountable for their rhetoric. Ms. Weiner described how the AJC interacts with civil society leaders and organizations, such as the World Union of Jewish Students, in order to combat religiously-based hate crimes and hate speech.  Finally, Dr. Williams outlined how the role of civil society in combatting intolerance continues to be examined, as well as the ways that the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is building programs that are inspiring a global dialogue on why antisemitism and racism continue to plague our world and how we might resist it through the lessons of the Holocaust. For more about this initiative, please visit www.ushmm.org/askwhy. For more information on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, please visit www.ushmm.org.

Religious Freedom and Empowering Civil Society

When asked by Dan Holtrop, East Asia and Pacific Unit Chief in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religious Freedom, why religious freedom should be a priority, Ms. Zubayra Shamseden, Chinese Outreach Coordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, responded that religious freedom is a basic human right because religion is a major part of “history, identity, and culture,” and explained that the suppression of religious freedom erodes these other fundamental forms of identity. Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang, President and CEO of Boat People SOS, described how he fled from Vietnam in 1978 and cited his background as a refugee as one of the reasons he focuses on protecting religious freedom. As he put it, religious freedom is not just one right, but a “packet” of rights, including the freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and so on. Lastly, Dr. Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, stated that civil society and other international leaders and organizations are effective policy tools and are needed in order to stop the ongoing religious discrimination against the Rohingya people and other minority groups in Asia.

The Effects of Trauma on Religious Freedom

In the final installment of the Religious Freedom discussion series, Dr. James S. Gordon, Founder and Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, and Dr. Sousan Abadian, a Franklin Fellow in the Office of Religious Freedom, talked about the effects that traumatic experiences can play in religious intolerance and detailed the role of “post-traumatic growth” in combatting religious intolerance. Dr. Gordon explained that individuals go into “fight or flight” mode, which can actually last until long after the traumatic event has ended, which often contributes to bias, including individual bias against a certain religious, ethnic, national, or other group. Dr. Gordon also provided the audience with a description of a simple breathing technique to reduce stress and quiet the mind, which that can be practiced anywhere and by anyone. Simple techniques such as breathing exercises can contribute positively to post-traumatic growth and combatting religious bias and intolerance. As Dr. Abadian concluded, “People can evolve. They can strengthen, they can become more compassionate and empowered following traumatic experiences.”

Religious Freedom is a fundamental and inalienable human right that must be protected. To find out more, please visit https://www.state.gov/j/drl/irf/

About the Author: Ashley Faler is an Intern in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Editor's Note: This entry is also published in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.