International Religious Freedom Alliance: paper tiger or trendsetter?

By February 14, 2020

International (MNN) — defines “paper tiger” as an entity that appears powerful but is actually ineffectual. Critics might claim this is a fitting description of the new International Religious Freedom Alliance, while supporters laud its potential.

Isaac Six with Open Doors USA says the coalition could create opportunities for Gospel workers by making religious freedom a global priority. “Where are the missionaries at, and what’s keeping them from being able to share their faith with others?” he asks.

“Often, there are either societal or governmental pressures or regulations that really, really inhibit the freedom of people to share the Gospel.”

What is the International Religious Freedom Alliance?

The International Religious Freedom Alliance launched last week at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. It’s the first group of its kind, with 27 countries committed to five principles.

Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally (Photo courtesy of American Life League via Flickr)

“Honestly, most countries don’t bring this issue (religious freedom) up as one of their top priorities,” Six explains. “So, anything you can do to make this a part of the normal discussion [between countries] is great.”

Efforts to secure global focus on religious freedom came up this summer during the U.S. Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.  Additionally, President Trump underscored U.S. commitment to the issue in September. Alliance members continue this emphasis.

“The Alliance determined to be proactive in their work, not just… ‘We all agree on these principles and will sort of passively make sure everything’s fine’,” Six says.

Instead, Alliance members decided “we’re going to pro-actively work on promoting religious freedom, not just in our own countries, but in other countries as well.”

Why does it matter?

Last year, the Pew Research Center highlighted a significant rise in religious restrictions worldwide. “I think Secretary Pompeo said… eight out of 10 individuals [worldwide] still aren’t free to choose their own religious beliefs without government coercion, or pressure from family or the public,” Six notes.

“Religious Liberty” was commissioned by B’nai B’rith and dedicated in 1876 to “the people of the United States” as an expression of support for the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Teaching leaders and everyday citizens about religious freedom can help a society learn why it’s a fundamental human right.  People must first identify what and why problems exist before they can be part of the solution.  Some countries and cultures perceive religious oppression as “normal” behavior.

“I can remember talking to [believers in] Chinese house churches,” Six describes as an example.  These believers said “everything is fine” but when Six asked if they could share their faith with others, their response told a different story.

“They said, ‘Oh, no, why would we do that?! We would never do that. You’d be arrested right away’,” he recalls.

“It didn’t even occur to them that they should have the ability to go out and give someone a Bible without being arrested. And, that’s because of government policy.”

So… what’s the problem?

While the Alliance has widespread support, some find fault with the coalition. This critic warns of unintended consequences connected to interfaith dialogue.

Others fear policy decisions will make the Alliance ineffective. “The main obstacle to the U.S. role in this alliance is simply that the administration of President Donald Trump has implemented the tragic travel ban,” Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director for Amnesty International, told Voice of America.

“… how can the U.S. be taken seriously when Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, or Sudanese Christians, or other persecuted groups are unable to enter the U.S. due to this ban?”

How can I help?

Surround this new initiative in prayer. Ask the Lord to guide decision-makers. It’ll take some time, Six says, but pray believers worldwide will benefit as the Alliance gains traction.

“Things, especially in international diplomacy tend to move at the speed of an iceberg. It can seem like there [are] endless meetings and discussions, and… it’s hard to sometimes translate that into impact on the ground,” he says.

“Over the years to come, I think you’re going to see action that leads to people who’ve been in prison for their faith being set free, that leads to religious minorities facing severe persecution getting a little bit of relief.”

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Header image depicts Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Ambassador-At-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback at the International Religious Freedom Alliance dinner at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 5, 2020. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

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