When religious freedom is protected, it prevents a cultural and political majority from forcing their beliefs on others through state power. In this sense, it protects both religious and non-religious communities. Today attempts to suppress religious freedom are becoming a global trend, which is an assault not only on human dignity, but also on individual liberty and human rights. This event discussed the role religious freedom plays in containing autocracy in different areas of the world such as China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, by taking a look at the history of Central Europe’s fight against communism.
The speakers for this event were Paul Coyer, Research Fellow and Vice President of the Common Sense Society, Louisa Greve, Director of Global Advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Lilla Nóra Kiss, Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University, and Michael Rubin, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, with Mónika Palotai, Visiting Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute, as moderator.
The event began with Mónika Palotai recounting her recent trip to Ukraine, describing the destroyed homes, schools, and churches she saw during her stay. She explained the important role that churches have taken on in organizing evacuations and in distributing food. During times of oppression, churches often transform into a shelter for their community. Religious freedom safeguards democratic societies because, without tolerance and the ability to think and worship freely, democracy doesn’t exist. Autocratic regimes do not believe in freedom of beliefs and consider it a threat; it undermines obedience, mobilizes society, and supports an environment where differing opinions can be debated. Therefore, religious groups often become targets.
Lilla Nóra Kiss took the audience through the lessons that can be learned from Eastern European history. This is mainly the common heritage of the Central and Eastern European region, which is that freedom and human dignity cannot be taken for granted. Preserving religious freedom is also about preserving the nation. Throughout history, religious communities became a safe haven and the basis for organizing resistance, especially when they were being persecuted by foreign oppressors. Religious beliefs are elements of an individual, and identity is connected to national identity. If a totalitarian regime tries to erase religious identity, it will also erase national identity.
“[In Europe,] religious freedoms are not just about individual rights, religious freedoms are also about public identity or, with a more European term, national identity.” – Lilla Nóra Kiss
Louisa Greve dived into the case of the Uyghur persecution in China. She identified four aspects that play a role in the problem. First is the role of high tech. Technology goes beyond tracking and censorship; it goes to targeting individuals in a way that invades not only their outward expression but also their bodily integrity. Examples of this are Uyghurs being arrested for using the Arabic greeting “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” which is commonly used by Muslim communities. The use of GPS tracking also poses a threat to Uyghur autonomy. Any challenge to state supremacy and loyalty is highly dangerous and has led to the genocide of the Uyghurs. The second is the transnational deployment of religious repression. Technology is embedded in supply chains, which may result in other nations pushing for religious suppression, such as what happened with ISIS. Being embedded in the international system creates pathways for totalitarians to push religious repression into democracies. The third deals with corporate accountability. Large companies are creating these tools, which open the door for forced labor, such as the case of the Ugyhurs, where 2-3 million people were taken away from their jobs and put into factory work by the government. Finally, Greve emphasized the role of religious communities and the importance of committing to solidarity.
Putting the issue into yet another perspective, Michael Rubin discussed how religious freedom impacts US policy. In his viewpoint, Western diplomacy is based on wishful thinking, whereas it should focus on the reality of the situation. The protests in Iran have served as a strong example of the struggle for freedom, and many of those impacted by the oppressive regime are double minorities. Additionally, Rubin emphasized the idea that religious freedom is a way to assess the situation in these states. For example, Pakistan used to regard religious holidays as national holidays, but its rollback on these protections demonstrates Pakistan’s decline in freedoms. Another case is in Nigeria, which was removed from the Religious Freedom Watchlist, but whose actions do not reflect any change. Rubin concluded with the idea that the trickle-down effect that comes from respecting religious freedom will bolster US security.
“Religious freedom is the canary in the coalmine. Respect for religious freedom is the only factor… that accurately gauges the sincerity of reform within society.” – Michael Rubin
Paul Coyer wrapped up the event by examining the situation in Latin America. Latin America is closely tied to the US, and, as emphasized throughout the event, religious freedom underpins other freedoms. There have been various threats to religious freedom in the region. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega views Catholicism and Evangelism as a threat and has exiled priests he deemed to be troublesome, closed religious schools, and even sent away missionaries who once provided food to anti-government protesters. Argentinian President Alberto Fernández has attempted to keep Catholics and Protestants from taking office. Multiple religious leaders have been victimized by the regime in Venezuela, where the country has seen a rise in anti-Semitism, and Christian prayers and Christmas carols have been rewritten. These cases all demonstrate the backsliding in religious freedoms in Latin America, which is important for the US to recognize for strategy and security purposes.
Watch the panel discussion in its entirety here: