Religious liberty conferences highlight the freedom that many lack around the world

Written by William C. Duncan

July 29, 2022

Returning to Vietnam after attending an international conference held in Washington, D.C., Nguyen Xuan Mai was detained at the Ho Chi Minh City airport. She was held for questioning overnight and then released, but only after her phone and emails were searched. Associates who came to the airport to see her said they were filmed by police.

Nguyen Xuan Mai was returning from the International Religious Freedom Summit held at the end of June. She is a member of a religious group, Cao Dai, that is in disfavor with the government of her country, since Vietnam has a separate state-endorsed version of the faith.

The D.C. conference was sponsored by a “coalition of religious, human rights and civil society groups.”

At the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We know the world is safer, and more stable, when people have the chance to practice their faith freely.” Despite this, the State Department’s report on religious freedom noted “rising hate in many places – including antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and attacks on Christians, religious minorities, and people who choose not to believe.”

Conference sessions focused on these threats.

Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for International religious freedom, provided some “concrete examples” of religious persecution:

  • Continued “genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs who are predominantly Muslim and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups” in China, including “many reports of deaths in custody, torture, and physical abuse” and “thousands of Uyghur family members – daughters and sons are desperate to know where their parents are.”
  • A continued Chinese “crackdown on Tibetan Buddhists. Authorities arrested, tortured, and committed other abuses against Tibetans who promoted their language and culture, possessed pictures and writings of the Dalai Lama, or practiced their religion at Buddhist monasteries.”
  • “Russian courts regularly reach new milestones for excessive prison sentences against individuals exercising their religious freedom.”
  • “The Taliban regime and rival militant group ISIS-K have detained, intimidated, threatened, and attacked members of religious minority communities.”

Just last week, the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative held another international religious freedom conference, in Rome. This academic conference focused on areas of concern such as protection of religious minorities.

The dean of Notre Dame’s law school, Marcus Cole, raised similar examples to those of Ambassador Hussain and mentioned some others. For instance, a movement “in Africa and Latin America … called the Abidjan Principles, which has the purported purpose of forcing religious schools in developing communities to conform to public educational standards. The practical effect, however, is to eliminate religion in schools, including religious educators.” While he expressed appreciation for protective religious freedom decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, he pointed out that such decisions have only come because “assaults on religious freedom have become so common in American life.”

Justice Samuel Alito spoke at the conference as well. He gave an important warning: “We can’t lightly assume that the religious liberty enjoyed today in the United States, in Europe, and in many other places will always endure. Religious liberty is fragile, and religious intolerance and persecution have been recurring features of human history.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also spoke at the conference. He called “for a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”

The need for such an international movement is apparent in the experience of Nguyen Xuan Mai. In the United States, strong constitutional guarantees of religious freedom ensure that disputes will be heard in courts and that lawmakers will feel at least some obligation to respect the rights of people of faith. It is good to remember that not all people enjoy this privilege. If we are to keep it, we must help people understand – by both word and action – the value to society of protecting religious practice and expression.

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