BLOG POST: A clarion call for international religious freedom

CapitolBy Erin Rodewald || July 21, 2018

Fundamental to the American character is an embrace of religious freedom. It is our first freedom, enshrined in our founding documents:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. —Declaration of Independence

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. —U.S. Constitution, First Amendment

Religious freedom has not been gifted to Americans alone, of course. It is a universal value — worth protecting, but often abused. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, restrictions on religion around the world are on the rise, with one-third of the population surveyed living in places with high or very high levels of persecution.

A quick glance at the headlines affirms the statistics: Rohingya Muslims massacred and driven from their homeland; Yezidi women brutalized and enslaved by ISIS; thousands of Christians slaughtered in Nigeria; faithful Baha’i members routinely persecuted in Iran and Yemen; anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe.

Time to sound a clarion call for religious freedom around the world.

In the coming week, the U.S. Department of State will host the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. The three-day summit (July 24-26) will bring together ministerial-level officials from more than 40 nations, as well as religious leaders, NGO representatives, civil society organizations, and human rights advocates. The goal: reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and identify concrete initiatives to raise religious freedom as a global priority.

“Every human by nature of their dignity as a human being deserves the capacity to worship in the way that they want to worship, or if they chose not to worship at all, so be it,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a recent interview with VOA News. “No one should be punished by their government for their religious beliefs or their religious activities connected to those beliefs.”

The Ministerial represents the largest and highest-level gathering ever on the issue of international religious freedom and comes on the 20th anniversary of the passage of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. IRFA established the framework that elevated religious freedom as a priority within U.S. foreign policy.

In addition to formal plenary sessions and testimony from survivors of religious persecution, a number of side events are planned around the city. Topics for side events (many of which are open to the public) include lectures on the status of religious freedom in places like China, Nigeria, Syria, and Russia; screening of the film, Letter from Masanji; a multi-faith prayer service; an exhibit called The People of the Cross that highlights the persecution millions of people experience as daily followers of Jesus Christ; and a discussion about technology and religious freedom.

A full list of Ministerial events can be viewed at Follow me at @EDRodewald for live coverage of Ministerial events throughout the week.

GUEST AUTHOR: Putin imperils religious freedom in Russia

By Abigail Berg, Director of Government Relations at 21Wilberforce // June 26, 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been branded extremists and their worship banned in Russia [Photo Credit: EvgenyEpanchintsev (Tass)]


Even as the carnival-like mood carefully crafted by Russia for the World Cup soccer competition captivates an international audience, a darker, more sinister drama is unfolding in the shadows. Scores of Russian citizens have been harassed, branded extremists, and quietly imprisoned for their faith.

In recent weeks, Russia has escalated its crackdown on the country’s 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. By some accounts, upwards of 40 members have been jailed, held under house arrest, or forced to sign agreements not to leave areas where they reside. Police raids, under cover of darkness and reminiscent of a bygone era, have become common again. “It always happens at night, when people have returned from work and have gathered together to read the Bible,” said Yaroslav Sivulsky in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A member of the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, Sivulsky describes how “security agents jump over fences, break down doors without knocking, or dramatically get into the scene in some other way. If the authorities can do this to us, they can apply the same logic to do this to anyone in Russia.”

In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court revoked the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ status as an approved religious group and declared it was no longer allowed to operate. Even worse, the court has labeled practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremists, on par with ISIS. Those who continue to identify as a Jehovah’s Witness in Russia, dominated by traditional Russian Orthodoxy, could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from steep fines, confiscation of property, and up to 10 years in prison. Continue reading

BLOG POST: A sobering summer reading list

BLOG POST: A sobering summer reading list

by Erin Rodewald // May 23

PBS launched a summer series this week called The Great American Read — a celebration of reading and a challenge to book lovers to weigh in on their choice for America’s best-loved novel. In the spirit of the PBS project, which showcases great fiction, I offer my own challenge: a summer reading list that highlights the important nonfiction topic of international religious freedom (IRF).

Religious freedom conditions are deteriorating around the world. One need only scan the global headlines to recognize the grave consequences born of a disregard for religious freedom. We read of genocide, ethnic cleansing, rape, imprisonment, enslavement, forced displacement, forced conversions, intimidation, harassment, destruction of property, and marginalization of women and children. Indeed, nearly 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with high or very high levels of restrictions or hostilities associated with religious freedom.

This IRF Summer Reading List features a short selection of books that wrestle with the sobering themes of human dignity, religious persecution, and freedom of conscience. I encourage readers to include one or more of these titles alongside that great American novel this summer.

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ARTICLE: Satellites and sanctions: How the West can support Iran’s faithful

ARTICLE: Satellites and sanctions: How the West can support Iran’s faithful

By Erin Rodewald // April 24, 2018

(This article was originally written for and posted to 21Wilberforce)

In recent days, reports have surfaced that Aziz Majidzadeh, a newly converted Iranian Christian, has been detained at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Aziz had gone missing for several weeks after Iranian security forces raided a Christian workshop he was attending on the outskirts of the Iranian capital. Though he has not been charged, Aziz has been arrested before for “activities related to his faith.” He is not alone.

Since 2010, more than 600 Iranian Christians have been arrested and detained by Iranian authorities. As of late 2016, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reports approximately 90 Christians remain imprisoned due to their religious beliefs and activities.

“Technically, it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Iran. However, in practical terms, policemen, Revolutionary Guards, judges, and every other authority in the country interpret the law for themselves and aren’t accountable to anyone,” writes Marziyeh Amirizadeh, who was herself imprisoned for 10 months in 2009 before receiving asylum in the U.S. “Though being a Christian [is] not a crime, converting from Islam to another faith and evangelizing on behalf of that faith [are] considered crimes of apostasy and punishable by death.”

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GUEST AUTHOR: Champion of Chinese human rights mourned as religious freedom diminishes under Xi

Wolf and Li

21Wilberforce Distinguished Senior Fellow Frank Wolf and Chinese human rights advocate Dr. Li Baiguang shared an abiding friendship


By Frank R. Wolf, Distinguished Senior Fellow at 21Wilberforce // March 27, 2018

21Wilberforce was shocked and saddened at the sudden death of Chinese human rights defender Dr. Li Baiguang. Dr. Li has been a long-time friend and a stalwart voice for religious freedom in China. His untimely death is shrouded in suspicion.

Dr. Li died shortly after returning home from a visit to the United States in February, where he and a delegation from ChinaAid met with U.S. officials to advocate for human rights and religious freedom in China. The official word is Dr. Li died of liver failure, but many believe the Chinese authorities are responsible.

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BLOG POST: Prayers for the Persecuted Church


Photo Credit: Screen Shot of International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church website

By Erin Rodewald // November 5, 2017

Christian persecution is not a first century phenomenon. For hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide who daily experience verbal harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, displacement, torture, rape and even death, the struggle is real.

According to a newly released report from Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), “the persecution of Christians is today worse than at any time in history. Not only are Christians more persecuted than any other faith group, but ever-increasing numbers are experiencing the very worst forms of persecution.”

It is a timely and fitting occasion then to focus attention on persecuted Christians today, November 5, which marks the 22nd International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP).

Persecuted Christians “often suffer in silence and isolation,” says Godfrey Yogarajah, Executive Director of the World Evangelical Alliance, Religious Liberty Commission, which sponsors IDOP each year. In a statement, he adds: “The IDOP has been a source of solidarity and encouragement to persecuted Christians by reminding them that they are part of a larger, global family of believers.”

Christians are by no means the only religious or minority group subject to harsh treatment and religious persecution, and the IDOP does not seek to diminish the real and urgent needs of those groups. It does seek to draw attention, however, to those persecuted for their belief in Christianity, which remains the world’s most oppressed faith community, according to the ACN report. Titled Persecuted and Forgotten?, the report cautions that in some regions, the church is on the verge of extinction as a result of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

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ARTICLE: Slow Fade or Renewal of Spirit?


George W. Bush delivering speech at Spirit of Liberty Forum. Source: George W. Bush Institute.


By Erin Rodewald // October 25, 2017

(This article originally appeared in Providence magazine)

America in the 21st century is experiencing an identity crisis of sorts. The nation seems caught in a cultural maelstrom that is producing a crisis of confidence here at home. Free speech is disputed on college campuses, religious freedom is challenged in the courts, and the press is criticized for fabricating news to drive a particular political agenda. Our civic decency and national discourse have been compromised.

Meanwhile, economic, political, and national security concerns have sparked a renewed appetite among many Americans—private citizens and elected officials alike—to turn a collective gaze inward. An apparent downturn in what was once an enthusiastic embrace of the basic tenets of democracy and open markets may be jeopardizing what has been a robust and longstanding foreign policy engagement.

Is the liberal democratic order that has provided stability, prosperity, and freedom across the globe for the better part of 70 years in peril? Is America witnessing a slow fade of its core values, or is the country at a tipping point that will lead to a renewal of the spirit of liberty? Continue reading