Will future generations defend freedom of belief?

Religious persecution is on the rise around the world according to data from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. State Department, Freedom House, and Open Doors among others. Former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein says that, “enemies of religious freedom have grown alarmingly strong worldwide. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Given reports and personal stories of discrimination, it is difficult not to despair. Yet, there is amazing work being done by governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities and faith communities around the world to combat persecution. What is important to remember is that each of these entities is comprised of leaders who care about freedom of belief.

It is imperative that we continue to rise up future leaders. Here is some encouraging data. A recent poll of Generation Z and millennials, sponsored by the United Nations Foundation and Better World Campaign, reveals that young adults in the U.S. care about global issues. Nearly 4 in 10 participants surveyed said that human rights issues — such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press — tie with environmental issues as a top priority. Further, nearly two-thirds of the young adults surveyed believe that they can affect change with what the government does in this realm.

According to Tina Ramirez, founder and president of Hardwired Global, recognizing that there is religious dissidence around the world is a great opportunity to get millennials involved in religious freedom advocacy. In an interview with Adventist Review magazine, Ramirez noted that many millennials who enjoy religious freedom in their own countries may not understand others who are affected by religious oppression.

21Wilberforce believes religious freedom is the premier human rights issue of our era. In response, we host an Emerging Leaders Conference every spring to equip young adults as effective advocates for international religious freedom. The week-long program focuses on policy, human rights, justice, freedom of conscience, religion and belief. Recent participants share the positive impact this program has had on them:

“The Emerging Leaders Conference was the catalyst for my Capitol Hill career. I was equipped with the expertise and connections that are needed to effectively advocate for those who are suffering.” —Stephen Boyd

“The Emerging Leaders Conference provided me a springboard to confidently and persuasively advocate for the advancement of religious freedom and human rights. The ELC propelled me into my undergraduate thesis research with an invaluable foundation and has paved the way for a lifetime of advocacy.” —Caleb Kostreva

“The Emerging Leaders Conference equipped me to better understand and gain a greater appreciation for how religious freedom is viewed and addressed around the world. Not only did it introduce me to an incredible network of champions for religious freedom across the nation, it helped me discover my passion for those persecuted for their religious beliefs. After completing my master’s degree in Human Rights, I will obtain my law degree and use it to advance international religious freedom policies on a national and global scale.” —Caitlin Wood

The Emerging Leaders Conference gave me an in-depth and realistic look at what it takes to be involved with policy and international work on the Hill. It prepared me professionally to carry myself with poise and how to be a part of the political environment.” —Carol Nguyen

“I believe that the Emerging Leaders Conference equips young adults to be more aware of the realities of this world. As a former participant, I can attest to the effect it has had on me — both in my personal and professional life. I am motivated to think deeply about issues of justice, as well as the religious minorities that are facing oppression around the world.” —Purun Yeo

Extraordinary challenges lie ahead in defending religious freedom around the world. One of the most important commitments we can make is to invest in the next generation of leaders.