United States partners with the United Kingdom and others to advance religious freedom

The transatlantic partnership promoting freedom of religion or belief is strong and growing deeper. At a time of multiplying challenges to this fundamental freedom, likeminded nations are collaborating in new and important ways. Freedom of religion or belief is a universal human right, and protecting this human right can play a vital role in solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges. David Saperstein, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, and I visited London last week to meet with our friends and allies on this important issue.

On October 19-20, we participated in an important meeting convened by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on strategies to effectively advance freedom of religion or belief for all. The timing could not have been better, as individuals around the world continue to confront gross human rights violations perpetrated by state and non-state actors alike. Abuses range from authoritarian governments suppressing the peaceful practice of religion, to violent extremists exploiting religion to justify the targeting of religious minorities, as well as those of their own faith or sect who oppose their ideologies of hate. Groups like Da’esh in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Pakistani Taliban reject any regard for human rights.

According to the Pew Forum’s 2010 survey on the global religious landscape, roughly 84 percent of the global community believes in something greater than themselves. Despite this religiosity, millions and millions of individuals suffer from severe limitations on the freedom of religion or belief. Pew’s 2016 survey found that 74 percent of the global population lives in countries where governments or societal actors restrict the free practice of religion, and 41 percent of the almost 200 countries surveyed had experienced religion-related terrorist activities. These statistics are important for policymakers to consider: widespread restrictions on religious practice, combined with high levels of religious affiliation, can lead to human rights abuses, radicalization toward violence, and instability.

In this context, we appreciate the leadership of Her Majesty’s Government on these issues and welcomed the FCO’s effort to bring together a diverse array of diplomats and advocates to discuss solutions to shared foreign policy concerns.  The discussions highlighted effective responses to abuses of religious freedom that governments, non-governmental organizations, and faith leaders can take.

Our enduring alliance with the United Kingdom is based on common values, which includes our joint advocacy for the free practice of religion or the right to hold no religion at all.  These feelings were displayed during the G20 summit in September when Prime Minister Theresa May and President Obama reaffirmed the special relationship between the United States and the UK. President Obama stated that, “We don’t have a stronger partner anywhere in the world than the United Kingdom,” and emphasized essential role of British leadership on the world stage. As Prime Minster May responded, “We share the same values of freedom, openness, and tolerance.”

With this in mind, the United States is also pursuing ways for the broader international community to advance respect for religious freedom together.  In pursuit of this effort, the United States and Canada co-hosted a meeting of the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief (ICG) at the Canadian embassy in London after the FCO meeting concluded. Sixteen nations attended, plus the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.  The London ICG meeting followed the most recent meeting held at the State Department in Washington, DC this past summer. Canada and the United States formed the ICG in response to rising restrictions on the exercise of freedom of religion or belief occurring worldwide, as well as an expression of our shared values supporting the fundamental freedom to practice one’s faith, or lack thereof. Participating countries are fully committed to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The robust discussions last week laid the foundation for future collaboration to advance this core human right.

Freedom of religion or belief is a universal right, and the right is a foundational building block for any democratic society. Yet the exercise of religious freedom is literally under attack in many areas of the world. In response, the United States remains committed to advocating for freedom of religion or belief and to continuing to work in common cause with our partners in Europe and around the world.

Portrait of Knox Thames
Knox Thames, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia

Knox Thames is the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South / Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State. He can be followed on Twitter @KnoxThames