Panelists Urge Respect at Religious Freedom Summit
WASHINGTON — The International Religious Freedom Summit 2022 came to a close in Washington on Thursday, but not before putting a spotlight on the global religious freedom movement and highlighting examples of religious persecution around the world.
The summit purports to be the largest conference in the world focused on advancing international religious freedom, and this year it drew more than 1,200 attendees to the nation’s capital.
In addition to its religious aspect, the summit also proved to be a forum of bipartisanship co-chaired by former Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and former Democratic-appointed U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Chair Katrina Lantos Swett.
The invited speakers kept up the theme of bipartisanship, ranging from the current Biden-appointed Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The main focus of the summit was religious freedom worldwide and the struggle that many individuals face regarding practicing their own religion, often resulting in violence.
The event kicked off its pre-summit activities with a congressional advocacy day bringing together lawmakers, ambassadors and survivors of persecution.
Then the summit really got down to business, becoming a forum for the open exchange of ideas about religion, faith, and the barriers that arise between people of faith due to ignorance and misunderstanding.
One of the very first of several well-attended panels featured a discussion of government and the religious life of citizens.
Though comments on the separation of church and state and its pivotal role in American life were inevitable in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which did away with a woman’s constitution right to have an abortion, far more time was devoted to the idea of keeping government out of the religion business.
In fact, a number of attendees observed that when one religion comes to dominate a country’s government, minority religions are ostracized and their adherents left feeling that they have little power or say in their futures and their families’ futures.
At that point, conflict often ensues.
Though the panelists offered no easy solutions, all agreed that advocating for greater religious freedom and illustrating its tangible benefits was the best way forward towards acceptance.
A similar theme permeated the global movement initiatives panel hosted by Multi-Faith Neighbors Network co-founders Imam Mohamed Magid and Pastor Bob Roberts Jr.
“The reality is, the rule of law is important. It matters,” Pastor Roberts began. “You’ve got to have laws that protect religious freedom. But is that enough?”
“No, the law is not enough,” Imam Magid said. “You need to have relationships. It is all about relationships. You can have all kinds of laws in the books. But if people do not build relationships and understanding between one another, they will not respect each other and they will not protect one another’s religious freedom.”
The pastor held himself up as an example.
“That’s true,” he said. “Because I used to be petrified of Muslims. I thought they wanted to kill all Christians and take me out.”
“And this is what I mean,” Magid said. “This is a misunderstanding and misconception. This belief that we just don’t like you.”
Pastor Roberts said his belief changed the first time he was in the same room with an imam. He’s seen the same thing happen time and time again, as more and more pastors and imams have gotten the chance to get to know one another.
“That’s the moment the misconceptions change,” Roberts said.
“And so, to me, the biggest challenge for those seeking religious freedom in America isn’t the laws that have been passed or not passed, more than anything else, it’s the barriers to building relationships,” he said.
“Because when my tribe has a problem with his tribe having religious freedom, what difference does it make that the laws are good,” Roberts continued. “You’re still going to have hate speech out there. You’re still going to have harsh and inaccurate statements made.
“But what is interesting is, every single time I’ve seen someone who has made these statements about Muslims meet an imam, something has changed. Their minds have changed. And it’s not because they’ve discovered a verse in the Bible that says, ‘Love your neighbor,’ or ‘Love your enemy.’ And it’s not because they theologically came up with the framework to change their mind, it’s because they got to know somebody, and that somebody was humanized,” the pastor said.
On Thursday morning, the final panels also focused on the intersection between faith and government.
Pam Pryor, an executive team member at Cornerstone Chapel, spoke on the “Where We Go From Here” panel. While she acknowledged the rise in persecution that is happening around the world because of religion, she asked that the audience consider the work that has been done to fight against it, including that very summit.
“You know they say that there are two things that you should never talk about, and that’s faith and politics. Well that’s exactly my life,” she said.
“The fact that people are uncomfortable talking about faith is precisely why we have this problem. We should talk about that. … When we don’t talk about faith … that’s when bad things happen. So this conversation, what we are doing, is really important,” Pryor continued.
“I went to church last night … and I go without any fear of being jailed or attacked. May we — I want to speak to those of you in the U.S. — may we never take that right for granted. That’s why we need to work on domestic religious freedom with the same fervor that we work on [it] internationally, because if we fail, the example to the rest of the world fails,” she added.
The panel then discussed more summits that will be happening worldwide over the next year to continue efforts promoting religious freedom everywhere.
The summit closed Thursday night with a keynote by Enes Kanter Freedom of the Boston Celtics.