NEW YORK — Looking back on the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit, co-chair Sam Brownback believes it accomplished the goal of building relationships between global religious leaders and laying a foundation for what he hopes will be a “global movement.”
“These are people that may have never met before, and if they have it’s been at a place or in a way that didn’t facilitate relationship building,” Brownback told The Tablet. “If we can get religious leaders to stand up for each other, I really believe we can start to address these problems and reach every religion that’s a majority somewhere but a minority someplace else.”
From July 13-15, the inaugural three-day summit brought together religious and civil leaders from around the world to address religious persecution. Brownback, the former Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, co-chaired the event alongside Katrina Lantos Swett, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Over 30 distinct faith traditions, including all of the major religions, were represented among the summit’s more than 1,000 attendees.
“In the past, we’ve emphasized we should have tolerance for each other, but that’s not what Jesus called us to,” Brownback said. “It wasn’t tolerance. It was love, and we have asked people for too low of a standard. What we need is respectful and caring relationships.”
Over the course of the three days, religious leaders and advocates spoke passionately about the religious persecution that exists around the world and the need for freedom. Others gave powerful testimony about the persecution they or their loved ones have experienced.
Brownback noted the “powerful visual” when Holocaust Survivor Irene Weiss, Meriam Ibrahim, a Catholic who escaped a death sentence in Sudan, Chinese human rights activist Grace Gao and Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom president Ensaf Haider all took the stage together.
“They were all here together. Here is a common experience for people of faith, and this is why we as all the various faiths need to stand for each other,” Brownback said.
One prominent topic of the summit was the plight of Christians in Iraq — a population that is down to about 300,000-500,000 compared to about 1.5 million at the start of the 21st Century. Catholic Archbishop Bashir Matti Warda of Erbil highlighted the fact that Christians and Yazidis have not yet recovered from the genocide carried out by the Islamic State Group.
“Once dignity is destroyed, the family and all social stability is destroyed with it,” Archbishop Warda said. “While buildings can be rebuilt, the restoring of the dignity to those who have been brutally marginalized and humiliated as human beings is a far more difficult journey.”
Archbishop Warda spoke about the innumerable fathers and husbands that overnight turned into “helpless beggars,” that to this day stress on without an opportunity to find work or start a business. He recalled witnessing in the goat yard of the Cathedral where 230 tents were installed for 700 people violence against women and mothers by the husband or father who feels useless, unable to provide for his family.
He hopes going forward the international community to think beyond just financial aid.
“The restoration of dignity requires of international interveners and providers of aid something beyond the mere metrics of dollars spent and project completed,” Archbishop Warda said. “It requires an honest and sincere treatment of an affected people with a simple thing, that’s respect for them as human beings.”
Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church called the situation for Christians in the Middle East “very chaotic” and “very dramatic,” before sounding the alarm that the situation for Christians in Africa continues to worsen.
Brownback acknowledged that prior to the summit, the U.S. hasn’t had a relationship with the Russian Orthodox church. Now Brownback said he views the situation differently, recognizing how prominent a voice the Russian Orthodox are in the Middle East.
“We’ve got differences because the Russian Orthodox Church on its own terrain in Russia, but until you start talking and building the relationship and trying to work through those you can’t get anywhere,” Brownback told The Tablet. “I just thought that this was a major thing to have him here, speaking at the summit, and then following up afterwards for how we build the communications up.”
In remarks to open dinner on the final night of the summit, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told attendees the fact that “religion can inspire, encourage and foster hope in a world often thought desperate is a cause for optimism, as it keeps religion, and the insurance of its liberty, at the top of our agenda.”
Cardinal Dolan, who is U.S. Bishops Conference Committee for Religious Liberty chair, also noted that religious liberty is now recognized as a human rights issue, opposed to creedal concern. He said that distinction is important.
“Our enemies — and their name is legion — dismiss us as self-protecting, self-serving fanatics who simply want to protect our narrow privileges and rights while suffocating enlightened progress,” he said. “It’s also essential because of the shrinking of the clout of religion in the public square.”
The cardinal expressed confidence, however, that as the U.S. government “grows in its sensitivity to the faith dimension in international discourse, so will its recognition that protection of religious freedom is a crucial component of our foreign policy, and I might add domestic.”
Looking ahead, Brownback said going forward it will be important for the U.S. government to maintain international religious freedom as a bipartisan issue, and to make it a more mainstream foreign policy topic with the likes of the economic and military issues.
“Religious freedom needs to be right there in that mainstream foreign policy discussion,” Brownback said. “If we don’t get there, you’re going to see further huge problems. You can go around the world and the hotspots are already either flaming or smoking now.”
The plan, Brownback said, is to hold another International Religious Freedom Summit in the U.S. next June, with hopes to hold summits in the Middle East and Asia in between.