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An international religious freedom summit launched in the U.S. capital July 13 is bringing together an array of faith and political leaders with the goal of tackling discrimination around the globe.
The three-day IRF Summit 2021 “is about relationship-building,” co-chair Sam Brownback, former U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, told Religion News Service. “We really need to have civil society and religious leaders building relationships to stand up for each other’s religious freedom.”
The conference’s presenters include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Greek Orthodox Church Archbishop Elpidophoros, and Guatemalan pastor and televangelist Cash Luna.Among its more than 70 listed sponsors are the National Council of Churches; HIAS, a Jewish refugee group; the Uyghur American Association; and All Dulles Area Muslim Society. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, both Democrats, are listed with two Republicans, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, as honorary congressional co-chairs of the privately funded event.
Brownback’s co-chair of the conference is former U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom chair Katrina Lantos Swett. Brownback said they hoped to create a bipartisan, multifaith coalition to champion what the summit website described as the “cause of religious freedom around the world.”
The conference is addressing a broad spectrum of international concerns such as China’s widely condemned treatment of Uyghur Muslims, the rise of Hindu nationalism, the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and outbreaks of violence between Christian and Muslim groups in parts of Africa.
The Dalai Lama, Muslim American actor Mahershala Ali and New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan also will address the gathering, with Ali and the Tibetan Buddhist leader appearing by video.
Brownback, a onetime Kansas governor, said his experience at the State Department’s “ministerials” on religious freedom during his ambassadorial tenure showed him the common interest Republicans and Democrats had in international religious freedom in an era otherwise defined by partisan rancor.
“In 2019, we probably held the only event in America where Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pompeo both got a standing ovation,” he said.
Brownback said he remains optimistic that support for international religious freedom can be bipartisan, so long as such alliances receive appropriate “care and nurturing.” He praised the Biden administration for taking a hard-line position against China’s treatment of Uyghurs and expressed hope that this week’s conference can further encourage the foreign policy community to take religion seriously.
“Religion can be manipulated by enterprising politicians or clerics alike,” he said. “It’s not something you want to see abused, and we have seen it abused in very deadly ways.”
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