Coordinator, International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief
Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom or Belief, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Senior Fellow, Institute for Global Engagement
Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Knox Thames, senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and Liv Kvanvig, coordinator for the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, discuss models from around the world for advancing freedom of religion.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy webinar series. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. As a reminder, today's webinar is on the record. The video and transcript will be available on our website CFR.org and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. So, we're delighted to have with us today Liv Kvanvig, Ahmed Shaheed, and Knox Thames to lead today's discussion.
Liv Kvanvig is the director for the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religions or Belief and the head of Freedom of Religion or Belief section within the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. She joined the NHC after having worked for the Norwegian Human Rights Fund. There, she was responsible for support to local human rights organizations in countries such as India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Liberia. She was also employed by the Norwegian Center for Human Rights and the Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board.
Ahmed Shaheed assumed his mandate as Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in 2016. He is also deputy director of the Essex Human Rights Center. He was the first Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran since the termination of the previous Commission on Human Rights mandate in 2002. A career diplomat, Dr. Shaheed has twice held the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives. He led Maldives' effort to embrace international human rights standards between 2003 and 2011. He's won numerous awards, including in 2015, the UN Foundation Leo Nevas Human Rights Award, and in 2009, he was recognized as the Muslim Democrat of the Year by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.
And Knox Thames is a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement. He also serves as a visiting expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace with the Middle East and Religion Inclusive Societies teams. Previously, Mr. James worked at the State Department and two different U.S. government foreign policy commissions. He served across two administrations as a special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia at the State Department. He received a civil service appointment in September 2015 to lead the State Department's efforts to address the situation of religious minorities in these regions. And he's also served as the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. Army War College as an adjunct research professor. So, welcome all, thanks for being with us today. Knox, let's begin with you to give us an overview of the current U.S. government initiatives to advance religious freedom abroad.
THAMES: Sure thing, thank you Irina. And, you know to start with an interesting idea that the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifies a court martial if any officer sends her soldiers into battle without a weapon. And I think there ought to be a similar protection for advocates who are trying to do religious freedom work or trying to convey an impression and who aren't equipped with the knowledge to succeed. So I want to thank you, Irina, and I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for providing this opportunity where we can talk with two great colleagues of ours who are real advocates in this space and get questions from your unique network to talk about how can we effectively confront persecution and push for greater space for freedom of belief around the world.
The need for more training became apparent as soon as I started this work about twenty years ago. At that time, I was focusing on the former Soviet Union, and we'd get a lot of reports out of Russia and Central Asia about persecution. But they would come in the most unhelpful form possible. It would be single spaced, sometimes handwritten reports in Russian, which I don't read. And they were basically unusable for policymakers who are busy, who are juggling lots of things. You know, you need a concise, bulleted—who, what, when, where, and why—with some action requests to really move the needle. In contrast, the Jehovah's Witnesses were the pros, they would send their attorneys from Brooklyn out into the field, they would participate in the trials of their brethren who were being prosecuted for improper proselytization or something. Then they'd come back to Washington with a two-pager with it to clear requests. And it really made our job easier. And thankfully, in a certain sense, when the Jehovah's Witnesses are facing problems, we knew others were, too, and fixing their problems would really create space for everyone. But it was that sort of need that led Chris Seiple and I to write our book on advocacy—a handbook that broke down at various international systems, giving some tips for how to do this work to equip our colleagues in the field to give them that weapon of knowledge to effectively know how to engage. But since then, since 9/11, since the advent of the ISIS genocide against Yazidis and Christians, I think the field has really evolved, and evolved in positive ways. There's now a strong recognition that, while of course you want to advocate for your own, that's a good thing, that's a natural thing, to see lasting success. There needs to be religious freedom for everyone. And so, we're seeing a movement of NGO's, governments, parliamentarians, and religious leaders all coming together around religious freedom for everyone.
And I like to say that effective religious freedom advocacy will work if it's based on a four-legged stool, and it is bringing those four groups together. Governments and international organizations, civil society, parliamentarians and religious leaders. And if the four of them can be harnessed and brought in the same direction, we know that we can start to see lasting change—and the problem's big. Everyone on the call probably knows about the Pew Forum studies that cite 84 percent of the global community live in countries with higher, very high restrictions on the practice of faith. That doesn't mean everyone's persecuted. But there are only very narrow, permissible lanes of religious activity that they can operate within, and if they step outside of those lanes, they're going to be in a world of hurt. And so, for the one leg of the stool I'm going to talk about this morning, and in a couple of minutes I have left, is the government leg. This is where my time at the State Department working with the great team at the religious freedom office, both with Ambassador Brownback and before with Ambassador Saperstein, we really made an effort to create a multilateral network bringing like-minded countries together around religious freedom for all as defined by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, we avoided the approach of some, like Hungary, with a specific focus on Christian persecution, or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation with their focus on Muslim persecution. We focused on the right and creating the right and we saw some real movements made with the two ministerials, with our partnership with the Canadians, with the contact group. And then most recently, with the Alliance for International Religious Freedom that brought together the most like-minded countries and was searching for ways to move the needle. So, I think overall, we're seeing positive movement, we're seeing governments find ways to cooperate. We're finding more political leadership, requiring, or creating positions for religious freedom ambassadors. These are all going to be helpful things. Problem's big, but I think working together we can start to move the needle. So, with that, I'll stop and I'm happy to answer any questions after our other colleagues.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thanks, Knox. Let's go to you Ahmed, to talk about the UN's current mechanisms for proliferating religious freedom abroad.
SHAHEED: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, all. I'm glad to join this seminar. And thank you for inviting me to this important discussion. As UN's special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, my own mandate is by the Emirates Council, to advance the adoption of measures that promote freedom of religion or belief for all, and focus on the duty bearers, states as duty bearers, to identify and report on existing and emerging challenges to the enjoyment of religious freedom by all and to explore and report to the Council on the gendered aspects of this right. It is international human rights legal framework that underpins my work. In particular, I work to implement Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Article 18 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition, I use the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.
As the world bears witness to the proliferation of violence in the name of religion or belief, and the manipulation of religion in the interest of political ideologies in many parts of the world, it is vital to underline the urgent need for states to implement the internal commitments to respect religious freedom, is the right that only protects the dignity of all human beings, but also is closely linked to sustaining peace, security, and human development. As the primary UN mechanism to advance this right in cutting off my mandate, my working methods include transmitting urgent appeals and allegation letters to governments with regard to cases that require the attention of the government and the international community with regard to either imminent white-rights violations or to have occurred without remedy or address to the victims of such violations. I intake country fact finding missions, detailing engagement with the federal government in a country, to map the issues that are there to work with the UN mechanisms on the ground, and maybe other states as well, to see how that country can move forward in regard to respecting that right for all individuals. I submit a thematic report to the Human Rights Council under assembly up to a year on various trends and challenges that are emerging globally in regard to the enjoyment of this right. In the past three years that I have been working on this mandate, I have written an agenda on what I call implementing the rights safeguarded by the mandate, so an implementation agenda. And like Knox alluded to earlier, it relies on mobilizing a range of international, national, and regional actors on what is sometimes rightly called human rights diplomacy. One of the most basic obstacles for our implementation, that the mandate encounters, is widespread misunderstanding of what this would actually entail, what's Knox referred to as lack of literacy or not having the right tools to address this subject. Misconceptions abound, that freedom of religion or belief actually is absolute is sometimes argued, that the right can serve majoritarian privilege, rather than a universal human right. Again, that's an argument I hear from many parts of the world. And that this freedom takes precedence over other human rights, including those linked to nondiscrimination, again, a debate that occurs in many parts of the world. Other misconceptions include, as to how, when, and to what extent, this right can be limited when it's very cluttered with other rights in the Human Rights Framework. So, given this misconception in debates, I of course work very closely with other UN mechanisms that are related to my work. So other mandate holders, on say, women's rights, on LGBT+ person's rights, on freedom of expression, on assembly association, we work together to look at a holistic approach to doing this. And of course, in all this work, I do a lot of time on promoting what I call “literacy in freedom of religion or belief,” with the considerable effort invested in highlighting that the law protects individuals with exercising individually or as a group, rather than a religion or belief, per se.
So, I have given a lot of time the past three years, to issues linked to blasphemy laws, or advising governments on legal instrument reform, and working with faith-based groups taking that multi-stakeholder approach that Knox highlighted. My thematic reports have covered in the past three years issues ranging from how counterterrorism measures impact on religious freedom, the nature of the link between state and religion, how that impacts on various rights, anti-hate speech and anti-blasphemy legislation, anti-Semitism, and of course, my most recent report on gender equality. Although I have not hesitated to criticize governments when they fail to protect rights, I also look for opportunities to work with governments, as that has more impact, where there is a political will on the part of the government to work with you on mandates. I've also found that mobilizing international support is important for attaining impact, especially a growing community of envoys and diplomats working in this field, too, as well as Knox himself in his previous time at the State Department. The advantage when the UN flag also has considerable convening capacity, and I use that to engage with a variety of multiple stakeholders to list that Knox mentioned, I would add the media and social media and tech companies and other business as well, to ensure that they all can contribute to addressing the concerns that we all share. I believe that the growing community of diplomats in this area presents both opportunities and challenges to my work. So, I try to mitigate those challenges and maximize opportunities by engaging as widely as possible. My one buzzword is looking for synergies that enables me to work with everybody. And then I’ll respond to any questions you may have. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Ahmed. And Liv, let's talk about your work at the Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief to advance freedom of religion.
KVANVIG: Thank you so much, Irina, for inviting me to this seminar and thank you Knox and Ahmed for your introductions. Yes, so my name is Liv Kvanvig and I'm director of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. I assume that many participants might not know what the IPPFoRB, which is the short version of our long name, stands for maybe or does. So, as a quick introduction, the IPPFoRB was initiated by a small handful of parliamentarians from different countries back in 2014. And Knox Thames has been sort of involved from the beginning of that in his previous capacity. Today, the network consists of more than three hundred current and former parliamentarians from around ninety countries across the globe. The network is committed to advancing and promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, addressing freedom of religion and belief within a human rights context. We have a secretariat that is based in Oslo. We are not parliamentarians, we are full-time staff, running all the operations for the network.
We also have an International Steering Group, which today consists of parliamentarians, current and former ones, from Bolivia, Canada, Malaysia, and Turkey. We engage in capacity building for parliamentarians. The issue of obstacles and misunderstandings related to freedom of religion and belief was just mentioned by the Special Rapporteur. And indeed, when it comes to tools, we try to provide parliamentarians with the right tools to actually be able to tackle challenging issues connected to freedom of religion and belief, not just abroad, but also at home. In order to do that, we engage in everything from regional consultations to more sort of academic closed group discussions over a few days, to organizing local conferences. The last global conference saw 120 parliamentarians and other stakeholders gathered together in Singapore, where 75 parliamentarians from different countries signed what we call the Singapore Declaration, confirming their commitment to advancing freedom of religion or belief for all everywhere as a human right.
In terms of advocacy initiatives, we can do this in various forms. Sometimes we respond to initiatives that some of our parliamentarians themselves want us to help them with. Other times we collaborate, for instance, with USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) in the U.S., or other institutions, to write letters on precarious situations in various countries. In 2020, we have sent letters from the network on Cuba, on the situation for particularly Muslims in India, we have addressed the situation in Pakistan, and we've also most recently sent a letter on the situation for religious minorities in Vietnam. That last letter actually saw the signature of sixty-six parliamentarians from very many countries, including neighboring countries in the region. So, we have various ways of engaging, both trying to build capacity of our parliamentarians, but also providing network and platforms where they can engage with each other, but also with other relevant actors. Going back to the four-legged stool that Knox talked about in the beginning, we do try to connect the parliamentarians with civil society actors, with relevant government institutions, and also with the UN system. We engage quite actively with the current and former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief and invite both UN mandate holders and academics and experts on the issue into our trainings to provide a platform for engagement, for parliamentarians also, sort of outside the network. I think I'll stop there. And then I'll be open for questions in the next round. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let's now go to all of you for your questions and comments. You can raise your hand, if you look down on the bottom of your screen, click on the participants icon. And if you're on an e-tablet, click on the “More” button and you will see the raise hand icon there. And please say who you are, so that it gives our speakers context, and if you want to address your question to a specific person, that would be good. So, we get as many questions as possible. So, we'll go first to Liberato Bautista, and excuse me if I botched your pronunciation, correct me please.
BAUTISTA: Good morning. Thanks again for a very timely conversation. My name is Liberato Bautista, I'm the main representative at the United Nations for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. Question for the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Shaheed. Have you received any information about the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief under COVID conditions? If there are, have you responded? And what does that response look like? You may prefer not to respond to the second one, for the interest of time, but I'd be interested as well, if sometime in the future, you will write a report looking at the intersections of racism, and the deployment of religious language and religious text in the furtherance of racism and racial discrimination.
SHAHEED: May I respond?
FASKIANOS: Yes, Ahmed go ahead.
SHAHEED: Thank you very much, very good question. Yes, I understood correctly that you said about COVID and then about race, if I heard it correctly? Yes. In the COVID case, yes, I have received specific complaints about specific countries about specific measures taken. But the patterns have a common, if you like, common theme, that is, governments using heavy-handed measures to suppress rights of this minority state, typically using the COVID as a sort of excuse for doing that. And the responses that I have issued, some have been public, or some will become public after a window of a couple of months. But they all point out and remind states that, in fact, that the human rights work, the human rights framework supports and guides government actions, even in the present time, and that any restriction must meet certain criteria. In more general terms, I have expressed concern about the use or the accompaniment of the pandemic with hate speech. So, I showed a couple of public statements back in April. So, there's a concern about the scapegoating of Jewish communities followed by other communities, really showing a very disturbing trend at the time. And then one specifically on anti-Semitism because I found the trends really, really disturbing. But overall, the problem has been that in many countries, ongoing challenges were magnified by the pandemic, but in also a positive trend was almost all over the world, faith-based groups responded very positively in supporting positive measures to make communities safe in social distancing in their worship activities, personal care, humanitarian care. The response was quite heartwarming. In terms of racism and my mandate, I have been very keen on that overlap. I issued a report last year on anti-Semitism, the first UN report to look at global anti-Semitism and looking at the lens of anti-Semitism as a racial issue and an issue that also undermines the rights of Jewish communities exercising their religious freedom rights. I am currently working on a report on anti-Muslim and intra-Muslim hatred, again, overlap of racism and religion. I'm looking at other aspects of hate that uses, if you like, you know, critical race theory as a way to look at how that impacts upon others' religious freedom. And all of this will become public, when they're ready to be made public. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Ahmed. I want to just ask Liv, with your two comments in the chat just to clarify, by parliamentarians, do you mean members of parliaments in the various countries? And what is the view of African parliamentarians on the subject of advancing religious freedom? So, if you could just do that, and I'll go back to the queue, but wanted to clarify through your remarks.
KVANVIG: Okay, thank you. Yes, by parliamentarians, we mean elected parliamentarians in their country. They might not necessarily sit in the national parliaments. We also have parliamentarians who represent parliaments at the more provincial level, depending on the parliamentary structure of that country. So I hope that clarifies it. And the views of African parliamentarians on freedom of religion and belief, I think I will not be able to make a general—I can't speak in general about all parliamentarians in our network from the African region, their views on this, but I can say that we do have a very active regional network that we collaborate with in the African region, that has grown in recent years. We have a range of committed parliamentarians across increasingly many countries, men and women from various religious backgrounds, who are also all committed to promoting and working for freedom of religion or belief. So, in general, I think we've seen a positive response in our engagements on that continent. And we aim to sort of strengthen that relationship in the years to come as well. So, it's inspiring to see actually. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. All right, let's go to Andrew Baker. And accept the unmute prompt, please.
BAKER: So, I'm Rabbi Andrew Baker. I'm the director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee. And I also serve as the personal representative of the OSCE, a chairperson-in-office on combating anti-Semitism. Thank you, Irina, for organizing this. It's nice to see, at least virtually, old friends like Ahmed and Knox here and to meet Liv, as well. My question is, perhaps, at least geographically centered, less than the location that I think has been part of the conversation. In other words, it is not so much addressing repressive regimes, and how does one generate genuine support for religious freedom. But frankly, in countries that have a high regard for human rights, we in this case, the Jewish community, is confronting something that it really never had to address literally, I want to say for centuries, and this I speak of efforts to ban the practice of ritual circumcision, which is something that for Jews, it is an elemental obligation that dates really, for millennia. Most recently, efforts in Denmark, to call for a ban approach, even a vote in Parliament in the coming months. And it appears that this is viewed as a clash between children's rights and the right of religious practice and religious freedom. The community itself, and it's not unique to Denmark, we see it elsewhere, will say, well, this is a matter that religious freedom is considered secondary to other rights, even if they are really misunderstanding the procedure of circumcision itself, it's genuine value, it's minimal dangers, and so on. But it's an uphill fight in each of these countries. And, it's not something that's popularly well understood. But it genuinely threatens the continued future of these communities. If ban on the practice is actually implemented, and in these countries, Denmark being one, there's rather popular support for such things. So, it's an issue perhaps of medicine, but it's an issue of elemental Jewish practice. And it's an issue of religious freedom. And I know Ahmed raised this issue in his own report a year ago. I've tried to take it up at different times. I know Knox and the State Department has long also addressed this, but the reality is, it's not going away. And if anything, I feel like the challenges have even increased, even when political leaders will say we support it, it's quite evident that it lacks popular support, or popular understanding. Thank you.
SHAHEED: Yes. Rabbi Baker, very good to see you on this webinar. Yes, I did write about it in my report. And I've also engaged with governments where this debate has been spotted by me. And I have taken a very clear line on this. And of course, I reject the argument that any right is secondary unto another right. All rights are interdependent, interrelated, and there's no hierarchy amongst rights. And the position I've taken is that our set of questions, first of all, these people who call for the banning of men circumcision, you know, what is the context of that call? Have they actually engaged with the relevant stakeholders in this? Have they really heard the concerns that have been expressed by these communities? And of course, have they really applied the limitations regime that the human rights framework provides, which cause for very narrow restrictions are only to the extent that is proportionate to the total estimate need? And also, in a manner that is neither discriminatory, nor, destroys the right itself. So from the Jewish practice, in banning male circumcision, would amount to actually the destruction of a core part of their practice or belief, and I've been engaging with governments to look for ensuring that they attach the proper weight to be given to this burden they impose in the Jewish communities, compared to any other concerns that may have been raised on this subject. So, I have been very clear that I have not found an argument, whether it's based on children's rights or health, or whichever that can result in a total ban of male circumcision. I haven't seen that argument. And I've been asked in states that, you know, they have to make this case. And for me, it's very clear that, as Rabbi Baker, you know said, if these countries persisted in this ban, then they are risk total loss of the Jewish community from their countries. So, the proportionality test is not met in my view. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Bani Dugal, next.
DUGAL: Thank you very much, hello to everyone. I joined this call a little late. So, my apologies if this was already covered. But my question is for any of the three of you, but particularly, Ahmed and Knox because you've been working with member states on this issue? I'd like to know what signs of hope you are saying. I mean, what examples of reflection on the part of member states, can you share that has led to positive change, and whether these examples could be used to encourage other member states to promote freedom of religion or belief within their own countries?
THAMES: I would say just a couple of words that came to mind, and Bani, it's always good to hear your voice. I think, from an advocacy perspective, it's been very positive to see more countries get in the game to set aside resources, either by identifying particular offices or naming diplomats to play an envoy role. It used to be just the United States by ourselves with our ambassador-at-large, and now there's probably twelve or thirteen special envoys of different natures from around the world, both, of course in North America and Europe, as you'd expect. We've seen them in Taiwan and Mongolia, demonstrating this isn't a Western issue, but really a global issue that touches on every community around the world. As far as reforms, there's not a lot of good to point to, when we've seen countries release prisoners of conscience, that's always a win. You get asked, like, how do you know if you're making progress in this space, and it's very hard to measure. But seeing individuals released from jail is a concrete thing that, well, maybe not changing an oppressive legal system means the world to that person's family and can be an encouraging sign to a community. And we've seen releases happen in countries like Pakistan and Eritrea. But the two real areas of reform we've seen is Sudan and Uzbekistan. Both where, Ahmed and I have been engaged in our different capacities. And those are very much bright spots, those need to be encouraged. And it's a great example of proactive diplomacy with the United States and our partners with Ahmed in the UN system working together to encourage and bolster those reformers to do the right thing and really start to transform their societies.
SHAHEED: If I might just add something to that, I fully endorse everything that Knox has said about this. The key thing that I observe is that because there are now so many envoys, and so many governments give this weight a priority. When things promise something positive to happen, we have people who can come and help them. So, Uzbekistan is a case in point—a change in government of little opening and provided the space for the U.S. in particular in this case, and also the UN to come in and push things forward a little bit. Sudan is a case in point, it's a domestic change. But now we have people in available and women travel to push it forward in terms of support the government build capacity. In challenging countries, like even Pakistan, the number of actors in this field mean that we can no longer treat Pakistan as a black box, it is a number of actors there. There are no actors outside, so there are multiple linkages that we can develop that can sometimes work. In terms of looking at, what is, you know, what is more? I mean, we have very disturbing situations, look at China. I mean, how to count global burden of this, what's happening to the legal committee and elsewhere in China is a very serious concern. It's of a scale that has not been seen in a long time. And there are other similar instances as well. But at the same time, we now have a far higher number of actors working this field pushing things forward. And an example of course is the social media space. It's very difficult space, many actors there, the online hate is rising. But we see that tech companies also are engaging on human rights. So, it is a drip feed. But I think because a number of factors in the space, we can push things forward. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. I'm going to go now to David Saperstein who was the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom for his comments.
SAPERSTEIN: Well, delighted to do it—a great presentation so far. In many countries, there are perceived or real security threats that are responded to in ways that lead to repression of religious life. Do we need to rethink the strategies we use to work with national security officials, as well as justice officials in religious affairs, and find ways using influentials in the countries more effectively to try and put pressure on the strategical argument—the internal strategic argument that often drives some of the repressive steps that are taken, just in looking into approaches? I'd be curious to hear your take on them.
FASKIANOS: So, who would like to take that? Knox, do you have any initial thoughts? Having been now out for a bit?
THAMES: Now I can say what I think.
THAMES: Great to hear David's voice and great question. And it is sort of the question, how do you motivate an authoritarian system to become more open, when the time horizon for the person in charge isn't next year or next month, it's “I want to be alive and in charge when I wake up tomorrow morning.” And so convincing them of the relevance of religious freedom with arguments of your country over the long term will be in a better place, I think, oftentimes falls on deaf ears because they're not thinking about the long term they're thinking about “I want to be alive and in charge tomorrow morning.” That being said, I think the example of Uzbekistan and Sudan, when you had new leadership come in, there has been a wrestling with the old security establishment. But that was really when I felt like those arguments were being heard when the new leadership wanted to turn the page and understood that creating a freer space for peaceful religious practice is actually a good for their society in a number of different levels that we've all talked about. So, I think it's really about that argument to most effectives about timing, it's about audience, and seeing the opportunity to deploy it effectively.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go next to Mohamed Elsanousi.
ELSANOUSI: Thank you so much, Irina. It is so wonderful to see friends, Knox and Ahmed and Liv—really, it's wonderful to see everyone. I just wanted to highlight a couple of things here. And my question really related to religion and the role of religious leaders. And I know that the discussion more focused on multilateral governments and parliamentarians and all of that. But really, I think, and you both know, all of you know, that the role of religion and religious leaders is really underutilized when it comes to this area, and the potential is actually is not realized here in terms of advancing religious freedom or belief. For instance, as you both know, that there have been critical documents that were issued by religious bodies to support religious freedom or belief—the Marrakesh Declaration, the documents from the Vatican II talking about human rights and religious liberty, and all of these important documents. So, my question to you, I mean, how we can further really mobilize the interreligious community to support, knowing that, you know, 80-plus percent of the people in this planet believe somehow religion or custom or tradition? So if there is any, if that model is successful, and I know both of you, Ahmed and Knox, in particular, you have been working with religious communities, but my question is there any successful example that you can highlight to us, number one, and second, what needs to be done to better mobilize religious communities to further the, you know, to adapt and support for as the foundation for prosperity in other aspects of life? So, that would be my couple of questions, but thank you very much.
SHAHEED: Mohamed, very good question and good to see you again. Well, examples can be cited in specific country contexts or specific instances. In my visit to the Netherlands, I came across a number of initiatives by civil society leaders the rabbis and Muslim imams working together showing to the community that they got on well, and really demonstrating the spirit of acceptance amongst these communities, and therefore having a very positive impact. But more than that, them engaging and teaching young people about tolerance, acceptance and living in, if you like, in a modern society. They're examples of faith-based actors, religious leaders very bravely put themselves in front of danger to stop angry mobs or to create a counter-narrative for narratives of hatred, sometimes based on this argument. And of course, the people best placed to counter that narrative, essentially, are these religious leaders. And we've seen many examples of that. In the UN context, there have been two initiatives. One is one which, you involved yourself Mohamed, the action plan coming out of Fez, are looking at the role of religious leaders in responding to incitement that can lead to mass atrocities. Again, a whole range of activities are being carried out under this rubric to ensure that people of all faiths and none can come together to build societal resilience. We have what is called the Faithful Rights Initiative at the UN system, whereby be relied on faith actors of all faiths and none, again to come forward and demonstrate how from their different religious perspectives, they all arrive at a common point about rights for everybody, and again, using that to advance understanding. So, I still agree it's an untapped area with a lot of potential for use and I think Knox in this time doing that, I've been pursuing that. And we all need to really tap into the very positive energies that we can gain from engaging with faith-based actors.
THAMES: I would just make a quick addition. When I use the model of the four-legged stool, I think the weakest leg right now is the religious leader leg. And Mohamed, you're actually right to identify as a space where we need to do more. I think the Marrakesh Declaration was a breakthrough. But, the issues of the full understanding of religious freedom, the question of conversion, the questions of free speech, they're going to be more conservative groups that are going to be hesitant about that. So, it's going to take a lot of conversations and engagement. But I think, if we can bring influential religious leaders alongside the work of religious freedom advocacy, it's a game changer, because it actually gives political leaders the cover they need to make the hard decisions on reforming a blasphemy law or letting people out of jail if they have that, you know, religious endorsement, so I'm very encouraged by what Religions for Peace is doing. They've created a new subcommittee on religious freedom, and I'm hoping that it'll really start to bear fruit.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go to Paul de Vries.
DE VRIES: Thank you, thank you. I'm Paul de Vries with New York Divinity School and evangelical administer training program in New York City. And my question is, to get your reflection on three different lines of advancing religious liberty. I was part of the founding of Advocates International, which was founded, now about twenty years ago or more, maybe twenty-five years ago, and literally was founded in my office in New York. But it's 99 percent of the people in Advocates International are attorneys, and they're in a hundred different countries. And one of their priorities is to advocate for religious liberty. It's a Christian movement, and they in different countries advocate for religious liberty for Muslims, for Falun Gong, and for others, and it can be costly. They advocate for liberty because they believe God wants people to be free. And, and as a result, sometimes they are put in prison. Several have been put in prison in People's Republic of China, for example, for standing up for liberty for non-Christians, as well as for Christians. And so that's one route the local people in the country where there's a big issue about religious liberty. Secondly, private citizens—I'm one of the founders, also of the Evangelical-Jewish Roundtable in New York. And together, Jewish and evangelical leaders have gone to the Pakistan Embassy in New York, gone to Iraqi Embassy in New York, with our [inaudible] major incidents, to speak up for liberty for their people. And we've always been welcomed. The curious thing is the very fact that we're evangelical and Jewish together. Each time, the ambassadors would say, you know, "Wow, you guys can work together. Why can't everybody work together?" Yet, why can't this be a model? So, by modeling it together as Christians and Jewish leaders, I think we've seen some movement, and especially I feel in the Pakistan leadership. And the entire recording of two or three of our meetings was sent to Pakistan as well, not just some record that we did meet, but the embassy actually literally recorded the whole meetings each time. And of course, the third is, governments are—American government sometimes pressures other countries. I've heard that the latest peace agreement for the Middle East that the Trump administration helped to negotiate includes more religious liberty in the United Arab Emirates, where they will now allow churches to be formed in ways that they hadn't before. But this was part of international negotiation. So I'd like to quickly remind you, the local people in the country where there's a crisis of religious liberty, private citizens expressing their concerns in other countries but going to the embassies of the countries where there are issues, and United States or any other country using religious liberty as a point of reference for negotiation of peace.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Paul.
DE VRIES: Is there a priority there that works? What do you recommend?
THAMES: I'll just say a word about U.S. government engagement. I think U.S. pressure can be instrumental and bringing countries to change. We've seen this, we have a special list the "country of particular concern" list, which is a process the State Department goes through to identify the worst violators of religious freedom. And by putting countries on this list and starting a diplomatic process, we've seen changes, we've seen tough decisions made that wouldn't have been taken otherwise, but for them being on that list. I think it's a great reflection of American values and a great use of American influence to push for this right. And I think there is a question though with for other countries who are smaller, the balance for how to engage changes. China is, as Ahmed said, the worst of the worst right now. And they are a bully—they will threaten. And so, there is a question about how much do we value our values? Religious freedom advocacy is not as easy as it used to be in the sense that countries are pushing back.
FASKIANOS: Great. Liv, I know you have some responses to that, too. And there is a question in the chat about whether the international panel is able to coordinate extensively with parliamentarians, you know, I see nations and with the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. And it also talks about the Uighur and the Rohingyas. So, if you can address the former question and what was in the chat from Adem Carroll, the Burma Task Force, that would be great.
KVANVIG: Thank you. Yes, I saw the question and wanted to respond. I have to say that although we strive to be a global network, with the secretary to free people, obviously, there's a limit to how thorough engagement we manage in every single country of the world. We at the time—but I wanted to say that we have extensive collaboration with the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights in particular. We have a regional coordinator who works for ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights based in Jakarta, but she also collaborates with us. And in a sense, we see the regional work taking place on freedom of religion or belief in the context of [inaudible] as Parliamentarians for Human Rights as closely connected to IPPFoRB because we collaborate on action plans and activities throughout the year. So that's a very exciting development for us. I also just wanted to comment very briefly on the question of engagement of religious leaders, which I also find very interesting and very important, and the question that we also ponder within the panel that I had. Our target group, our mandate, and our funding is directed towards engaging parliamentarians. But obviously, we see that in many contexts, engagement with civil society and religious leaders, is also very important to sort of create proper context for the discussions. IPPFoRB is now part of a consortium, which will from 2021 actually start to develop a FoRB [inaudible] Leadership Network that not only consists of parliamentarians, but also brings in religious leaders in a selection of countries in the African region, and also parts of Asia. So, this is still a project in its very beginnings. But I'm quite excited and hope that these new platforms will create that discussion among these different groups, and that bringing the perspectives of religious leaders is important in this discussion on freedom of religion or belief in various contexts. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. And we have so many hands up, we're definitely not going to get to everybody. So, if you could keep your question short, that would be great. I'm going to Syed Sayeed next.
SAYEED: Okay. I just wanted to say one thing, as far as Islam is concerned, the sacred book of Islam, within code, makes it very clear that all human beings are the children of Adam and Eve, so in terms of the humanity as a whole, we have no basis to discriminate against each other. Now, in terms of religious preferences, the Quran once again makes that each one of you is absolutely free to believe in what you think is the truth. The Quran presents its own method, but it respects the perspectives of others. So, I'm sure that other sacred books have messages like that in their holy scriptures. So, it might be good that we bring out those teachings from the holy books, so that people know that we are not in any way allowed to discriminate against each other. So, I just wanted to make that point. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let's go next to Jeremy Barker.
BARKER: Hello, this is Jeremy Barker from the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington. Good to see a number of friends on here as well. I had a question to pick up on some of the themes that have come up related to kind of the growth in organizations, countries working on this issue, particularly within the diplomatic and human rights space, but something the U.S. has talked about, but even the UN with the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], of how to integrate understandings, issues of freedom of religion or belief into development activities into even defense and security questions. So, kind of to all three of the panelists, what are some of maybe the most promising practices you've seen of integration beyond just diplomacy, but how religious freedom is informing some of these other areas of activity?
THAMES: I can jump in and name a couple. One, when we were at State Department, we had a lot of success in bridging the gap between the religious freedom community and religious minorities with the cultural heritage preservation world, like UNESCO, the Smithsonian. That's a space where they welcomed our creating the connections with the communities that generate these world heritage sites and bringing them into preservation efforts. We've also seen a lot of progress with engaging the U.S. military chaplaincy corps, they have an assignment to go outside the wire, so to speak, and understand the religious terrain. So, working to equip them with the tools and perspectives they need so they can be effective diplomats, with their fellow men of the cloth, oftentimes in these places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So those are two that popped to mind. And I saw Ahmed had a couple thoughts as well.
SHAHEED: Thank you, I was going to say that actually the tagline "leave no one behind" attached to the SDGs is a great way of making sure that governments actually implement these rights for all. My next report out in about a fortnight, just shows how this can be done, how important it is. And I'm proposing a set of indicators to be added to the SDG sets of indicators out there to track governments' efforts to ensure that all the right side, are actually exercised by all equal. In other words, SDGs are rolled out in a way that all can enjoy those sites with equal access to this. I also want to point out that there's been a [inaudible] U.S. and also part of the European Union, I think it is. Religion society approach, the idea that, in addition to focusing on the legal framework, look at how people actually exercise their rights in society. In other words, building societal resilience, are building social capital, build a social trust, as a way to ensure that they mitigate the fractures, if you like, tenants in the community, and then create the ground to build communities, but back better. In many cases, when Indonesia and elsewhere, we see examples, communities are asked to come together to build a school for all, which means they're all invested in this and for the access to the service hours are guaranteed for all. So, there have been efforts made to integrate the SDG development work into a framework that respects rights for everybody, including religious freedom rights. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, we have several hands raised, and several questions in the chat. And I'm just thinking to wrap up. There a couple—how do you work around the reality that most of the religious leaders are men, women may have less officially official leadership roles? And then another question is the current use approach to religious freedom? There are legitimate concerns about the threat to Christian minorities, but as the focus on this proportionate, would a disproportionate approach put other persecuted minorities at risk. So those are the last two, I'll let each of you take a round, a couple minutes just to answer that or any other thoughts you want to leave us with, and my apologies to all of you that not being able to get to your good questions and comments in the chat and in the function. So, Liv, do you want to start on the—and we'll go round robin.
KVANVIG: Addressing the issue of focusing on Christian minorities, whether that's disproportionate to other minorities, I have to say, in the work of IPPFoRB, we do not have a specific focus on the persecution of Christians. We address issues of freedom of religion and belief in general. We try to have somewhat of a balanced approach when we do advocacy work, so it will not just be on persecuted Christian minorities. If we address the situation of a particular religious minority in a given country, very often we see that that context as it's difficult for many belief communities, and so we try to use that as an entry point to address issues of freedom of religion or belief in general. So, I mean, I fully agree attention should be given to all communities, there are also people who do not believe in a god who also are persecuted around the world. So, when we talk about freedom of religion or belief, we actually talked about that for everyone, everywhere. So that would be my response to that. I agree that we should have a broad focus. But obviously, sometimes an advocacy initiative needs to be tailored so that it addresses a specific situation. Maybe I'll just stop and leave the last few minutes to Knox and Ahmed as well. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: Great, Ahmed.
SHAHEED: Thank you. Great question. In regard to the male dominance, of course, it is a concern. My last report to the UN in March this year, I address gender equality, in the context of promoting this freedom. But I want to stress that in my work, which took me around some ten countries for various workshops, I came across, obviously, very active women religious leaders. Imams, [inaudible] for example, initiative working in Mali, in demonstrating how, in this case, the Muslim context, can support girls' education, girls, and women's and so on. Even in the UN's "faith first initiative," we were very concerned to measures all-inclusive meaning men, women, people of all faiths, and none were represented. And the way you do this by promoting what Knox said at the beginning, given the tool for people to work with, that tool is [inaudible], and belief is a human right, that applies to everybody, equally, men, women all have equal rights. And it is when we protect the capacity for them to exercise their rights equally, we actually have a situation, where everybody can enjoy their rights. I think, while that traditional dominance is there, I think, we have increasingly, one more voice coming in that show that women have equal rights, equal space, an equal stake in this process. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Knox, over to you for the final word.
THAMES: Great discussion. Thank you, Irina, again for convening this on religious leaders. I think we should think about engagement with religious actors. So, it's not just the men with the tall hats, but it's people who are living out their beliefs, there's the folks that we want to engage and be of assistance to. On the potential for over representation on Christian persecution concerns, I've always advocated for a holistic approach, that we advocate for the right for everybody. But we are specific in our actions. So, if we hear of Christians being persecuted, of course, we should be speaking out on that. Now if we hear Muslims being persecuted or atheists or whomever, we speak out, but we're fighting for the right to have freedom of conscience for everyone to believe or not to believe, and that's going to be approached, that's durable. That's going to avoid some of the pitfalls of the singular approaches we've seen other countries take. And I think it’s also going to meet the challenge of the new types of persecution we're seeing. Now there's an interesting confluence of victims that are all suffer the same, they don't usually talk to each other. If you think about converts, atheists, and LGBTI community and a lot of conservative societies, they are all suffering the same types of pressures in both legal and societal. Can we build new alliances to address all of their concerns that we can walk forward together, promoting an openness where people are free to explore their beliefs, however they wish? I think we're seeing some positive things, and Ahmed is a great advocate. He can take complaints and act on them, lead the whole movement of IPPFoRB, three hundred parliamentarians around the world, that's an encouragement. So, I think we're starting to meet the challenge of global persecution we're seeing globally, but there's a whole lot more we can do. And I'm glad we've had the chance to talk today about that.
FASKIANOS: Well, thank you all and we'll have to devote future sessions to continue this conversation and dig deep on some of the other questions that were raised in the chat. So, it's going to be a source of programming ideas for us. So, thank you all. So, I want to encourage you all to follow the speakers' work on Twitter—@KnoxThames, @ahmedshaheed, and @LKvanvig, for Liv.
KVANVIG: Follow @IPP_FoRB, then me.
FASKIANOS: Okay, @IPPFoRB. There you go. So, we'll follow the institution. Thank you.
KVANVIG: Yes, please. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: But it's great to have you all with us. Thank you very much. We appreciate it. I hope you'll also follow the Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter @CFR_Religion. And we will be sharing information there, as well as standing up more of these wonderful webinar discussions. So, thank you all again and look forward to reconvening in the near future.