By Erin Rodewald || July 24, 2018
Day One — Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
It is a humbling moment to stand in a conference hall at the U.S. Department of State, surrounded by representatives of more than 80 nations. The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom began today, and as reported by Politico, was the hottest ticket in Washington. Hundreds of human rights activists, foreign government officials, religious leaders, and journalists gathered to focus on how best to equip and empower civil society organizations to better address global religious freedom issues.
“This is a noble cause, but also a practical one,” said U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, in remarks to kick-off the three-day summit. “Where religious freedom is promoted, economic opportunity grows, security increases, and people flourish.”
The day’s events included a panel on how private philanthropic resources can be mobilized to address religious freedom challenges worldwide. Another session provided practical tips for harnessing grant opportunities via the State Department. Hollywood mega-producer Mark Burnett sat down with veteran broadcaster Greta Van Susteren and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) commissioner Johnnie Moore to talk about how to reach the masses with persuasive messages that both inform and inspire action in support of persecuted communities.
Peppered among the panelists and formalities, however, were the truly compelling stories from survivors of persecution and their families. The wife of Christian pastor John Cao shared about his false arrest and imprisonment in a Chinese prison. Tahrir Hamu, a Uyghur Muslim shared his harrowing account of repeated beatings and imprisonment in a Chinese concentration camp. Razia Sultana, a human rights advocate in Burma, spoke of the horrors endured by Rohingya Muslims, brutalized and forced to flee their homes.
Peter Bhatti spoke of his brother Shahbaz Bhatti, the former Minister of Pakistan Minority Affairs, who was assassinated in 2011 for his advocacy on behalf of religious minorities. “We continue our struggle to bring change to Pakistan,” said Peter, remembering Bhatti. “His sacrifice will not go in vain no matter how long we have to pay the price.”
Where religious freedom is promoted, economic opportunity grows, security increases, and people flourish
A tearful North Korean refugee, who was tortured and detained three times for possessing a small Bible asked, “Why is it we don’t have freedom of faith? Why do we have to be executed or sent to prison because we believe in Jesus?”
And finally, the daughter of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been held in a Turkish prison since October 2016, gave a tearful report about the father who devoted his life and ministry to the people of Turkey. “I saw how my father poured himself into his work, showing people the love and grace of God. His incarceration has simply been a bargaining chip for Turkey.”
Former Congressman Frank Wolf, widely credited as the catalyst for the international religious freedom movement that began twenty years ago, closed Day One of the Ministerial with an impassioned speech. “The task is urgent and the stakes are high,” said Wolf. “As a Christian, scripture gives me little choice but to respond to the oppression. Waiting for the right time is not an option. The persecuted cannot wait.”