The first fruits from last summer’s inaugural Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom have begun to ripen. At the close of the Ministerial, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo challenged participants to endorse the Potomac Declaration and join in the Potomac Plan of Action. The pair established a framework from which the international community could draw inspiration and a tangible blueprint to promote religious freedom and respond to persecution based on religion, belief, or non-belief.
Among the actions recommended was the creation of forums whereby religious groups, faith-based organizations, and civil society could meet to discuss strategies and solutions in support of religious freedom. In the U.S. that work began long before the Ministerial under the banner of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable. Today, individuals from more than 250 multilateral organizations — from NGOs and congressional offices to religious groups and human rights advocates — participate in the IRF Roundtable. Twice monthly they meet to share ideas and information and propose joint advocacy and initiatives that are helping drive policy in support of freedom of religion, conscience and belief.
In response to the challenge put forth at the Ministerial, and with the IRF Roundtable as a guide, similar groups are forming in nations like Taiwan, South Korea, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Just last month, nearly 40 leaders from diverse tribes, faiths, ethnicities and geographic backgrounds convened the International Religious Freedom Roundtable in Nigeria (IRFRN) — the first local roundtable outside the U.S. In a nation where ethnicity and religion are deeply connected and often intensely polarizing, the Nigeria Roundtable has provided a healthy forum where disparate groups are setting aside differences and working side by side.
“Seeing the model actually work is very exciting,” said Nathan Wineinger, Director of Policy and Coalitions for 21Wilberforce, who attended the first meeting of the IRFRN along with Greg Mitchell of the IRF Roundtable. “Groups from multi-faith traditions have joined the conversation with an understanding that religious freedom is important for the society they are in, and so they have decided to work together.”
Roundtable participants in Nigeria started by framing a strong religious freedom mission and vision statement for the country. The consortium then launched its first advocacy effort, drafting an open letter in anticipation of the upcoming presidential elections and calling on all candidates to uphold the highest international election standards and support the constitutional religious freedom rights of every Nigerian.
“Unlike interfaith dialogue, which builds understanding across religions, the roundtable model focuses on multi-faith action and advocacy where coalitions can form around issues,” added Wineinger. “Diverse groups find they have a seat at the table, which creates the conditions to stand in solidarity with one another despite their differences.”
In addition to the IRF Roundtable network taking root around the world, regional religious freedom conferences akin to last year’s Ministerial in the U.S. are being planned — one in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in February and another in Taiwan in March. More local and regional roundtables are a likely and hopeful outcome of these events.
While headlines and recent reports point to a decline in religious freedom globally, the news is not all bad as nations take up the invitation of the Potomac Declaration, which reminds us that, “defending the freedom of religion or belief is the collective responsibility of the global community.”
1. Learn how 21Wilberforce is supporting religious freedom efforts in Nigeria
2. Read what countries around the world have to say about freedom of religion, belief, faith and conscience in Eron Henry’s newly released volume, Constitutionally Religious: What the Constitutions of 180 Countries Say About Religion and Belief
3. Add your voice to the IRF conversation; participate in the IRF Roundtable letter-writing campaigns to policymakers
Photo: The first International Religious Freedom Roundtable outside the U.S. took place in Abuja, Nigeria January 2019