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Top Five International Religious Freedom Stories of 2017

From China to Cuba, international religious freedom (IRF) violations have remained a pressing concern throughout 2017. Here are the five most important IRF stories of this year.

1. A Three-Year Trend Reversed: Rising Religious Freedom Restrictions. In April, the Pew Research Center published its annual reportdocumenting an increase in religious restrictions for the first time in three years. The number of countries maintaining “high” or “very high” government restrictions moved from 24 to 25 percent, while the number of countries with “high” or “very high” social hostilities rose from 23 to 27 percent. This translates into 79 percent of the world’s population now living in contexts where they face marginalization, discrimination or persecution for their most closely held religious beliefs. This includes Russia, where in the past twelve months a new law has resulted in the prosecution of 180 individuals from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Buddhists. This reversed and rising tide stems from the ongoing crisis engulfing Syria and Iraq, unrestricted authoritarian governments, and transnational activities often linked to terrorism.

2. Nomination of Governor Sam Brownback as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. On July 26, Governor Sam Brownback was nominated to serve as the next Ambassador following in the footsteps of Ambassador David Saperstein who was well regarded for his robust engagement. Governor Brownback’s nomination was generally well received though ultimately the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations approved his nomination on a straight partisan vote of 11-10. Today marks day 132 since Governor Brownback’s nomination. While there is ongoing effort to see a Senate vote prior to Christmas, the window is quickly closing.

3. Unprecedented Shift to Assist Genocide Survivors in Iraq. In March 2016, Secretary Kerry determined that Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities in Iraq had suffered genocide at the hands of the Islamic State. This was only the second time the U.S. declared an active situation as genocide. Following several important legislative attempts, on October 25, Vice President Pence announced that the White House will redirect additional money to USAID with a mandate to ensure that the religious minority communities most impacted receive an opportunity to qualify for these grants. While full implementation is still ongoing, this marks both a significant policy shift as well as an unprecedented humanitarian approach within the U.S. that has the potential to significantly help communities that have been pushed to the edge of extinction.

4. Rohingya Muslims: Horrific and Rapid Displacement. Rohingya Muslims have lived in Myanmar for generations but are regarded by many in the country as foreigners. In the fall, this long simmering conflict erupted into a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. In the past 16 weeks, 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled as refugees to Bangladesh to escape rape, scorched earth leveling and mass killing where according to the Washington Post, “blood flowed in the streets.”

5. Relaunch of the IRF Scorecard and a Comprehensive Analysis of Congressional Engagement. In February, 21CWI relaunched the IRF Congressional Scorecard ( grading all 100 Senators based on a rubric of fourteen legislative items and all 435 Representatives on twenty-five legislative items. Widely downloaded, inside Washington D.C. the IRF Scorecard has already become the source used by policy makers and professionals to understand and track the depth and breadth of international religious freedom issues pending on Capitol Hill. To be published annually, the IRF Scorecard is quietly becoming the go-to tool used by insiders.

Elijah Brown

Executive Vice President

Take Action:

1. Contact your senators and urge them to vote for Governor Brownback as the next Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

2. Calendar mid-February for the publication of the next IRF Scorecard and visit today to see the latest insights.

A Personal Note

This will be the last A!ert I write in this role. On January 1, 2018, I will transition to the Baptist World Alliance as its ninth General Secretary. These past three years of working and serving alongside many of you have been an incredible privilege. I am especially grateful to 21CWI President Randel Everett and the entire staff who have given tirelessly and wholeheartedly to the mission of international religious freedom. On January 1, Sharon Payt will join the Wilberforce team as Executive Director. She has an extensive background in championing international religious freedom globally and is an amazing leader who will continue to partner with you in empowering a global movement to advance religious freedom as a universal right.


(c) 2017 Wilberforce Initiative

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