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International Religious Freedom Advocacy

H. Knox Thames, Chris Seiple, and Amy Rowe

Editor’s note: The first half of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 19 (Spring, 2011): 10-12.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is an important institution for advocacy in Europe and Eurasia. Encompassing North America, Europe, Russia, and the successor states emerging from the former Soviet Union, the 56-member OSCE is the largest regional security organization in the world. Religious freedom has been an integral part of the OSCE process, which over the past 30 years has developed some of the most sophisticated commitments on religious freedom at the international level. OSCE participating states have repeatedly affirmed freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief as a fundamental human right.

The body originated in 1975 with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, a politically binding agreement between NATO, Warsaw Pact, and neutral and non-aligned nations that focused on three “baskets” of issues—security matters, economic concerns, and the “human dimension.” The human dimension is OSCE parlance for human rights, and under this rubric falls religious freedom.

With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new countries from the remains of the Soviet Union, the geographic scope of the OSCE shifted east and now reaches into Central Asia. All of the countries formerly under Communist governments have acceded to the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent OSCE agreements. Importantly, unlike with other international systems, no reservations may be taken in the OSCE system, so these new members completely accepted all previous commitments.

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is a special arm of the OSCE that concentrates solely on human rights and democracy building (http://www.osce.org/odihr/). Headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, ODIHR assists participating states in carrying out and consolidating their democratic systems through election monitoring, technical assistance on the drafting of laws, and convening regional meetings to discuss various human rights topics. For instance, ODIHR has held two meetings in Central Asia on religious freedom-related issues and has provided critiques of draft religion laws. ODIHR is also responsible for organizing an annual human rights review conference. The OSCE maintains field missions in Southeast Europe, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. These OSCE missions represent an on-the-ground presence in a number of countries where religious freedom may not be fully respected.

United States Human Rights Bodies

Due to the unique history of the United States and its longstanding commitment to religious freedom, various U.S. government agencies and offices promote international religious freedom. As many early immigrants came to the United States fleeing religious persecution in Europe, the importance of protecting religious liberties was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The U.S. transition from domestic protection to international promotion of religious freedom, and human rights generally, did not emerge until the 1970s and 1980s. As these new foreign policy priorities developed, because the U.S. Congress believed the State Department could more vigorously promote religious liberty, it passed the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) in 1998 (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/irf/). In its findings, IRFA juxtaposed the international standard guaranteeing religious freedom against the poor compliance by many countries, noting that more than one-half of the world’s population lived under regimes that severely restricted the religious freedoms of their citizens. IRFA established religious freedom as a priority in all bilateral and multilateral talks and created new institutions, foremost of which is a special office within the State Department to monitor religious freedom worldwide, headed by the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

IRFA also created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to act as a watchdog to the State Department’s handling of religious freedom concerns (http://www.uscirf.gov). All U.S. embassies have at least one foreign-service officer detailed to cover human rights and religious freedom issues. These civil servants generate the first draft of an annual religious freedom and human rights report. The Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and his staff prepare this Annual Report on International Religious Freedom. Exceeding 800 pages, the report assesses the state of religious freedom in every country in the world except the United States. All the religious freedom reports are posted on the State Department’s Web site

(http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2010) and are translated and posted on U.S. embassy Web sites as well.

IRFA provides a calibrated list of actions the State Department can take in response to religious freedom violations, be they mild or severe. The Act created a new designation for the worst offenders, found to be committing “particularly severe violations of religious freedom”—Country of Particular Concern (CPC) status. “Particularly severe violations” are defined as “systematic, ongoing [and] egregious,” listing examples such as torture and imprisonment. At the time of writing, current countries designated as CPC are Burma, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

Established in 1976 by Congress, the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, monitors the compliance of the Helsinki Final Act and the other commitments under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A U.S. government commission, its staff monitors all 56 member countries in North America, Europe, and Eurasia concerning their human rights and religious freedom commitments.

Nongovernmental Organizations

Religious freedom NGOs share a common nongovernmental identity that affords them several general advantages. First, they maintain a significant amount of autonomy in the strategies and methodologies they employ to advocate for religious freedom, unconstrained by many of the political and bureaucratic limitations of national or international bodies. This autonomy allows them to speak more frankly, act more quickly, and innovate more freely than can international bodies and governments. In addition, NGOs typically can more easily access and gain the trust of persecuted faith communities, especially if they are coreligionists, as persecuted groups are often suspicious of governmental agencies because of past mistreatment.

NGOs also share a commitment to religious freedom as a fundamental human right and a deep compassion for victims of religious persecution. Many religious groups form NGOs specifically dedicated to the freedom of their faith internationally. These organizations are typically staffed by adherents to the faith and are motivated by shared religious beliefs and concern for their coreligionists around the world.

Faith-based religious freedom NGOs typically acknowledge that improved religious freedom benefits all faith communities, both their own and others’, and there are many positive examples of interfaith collaboration in the field. Notably, the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act was passed in large part through the joint efforts of faith-based religious freedom NGOs lobbying the U.S. Congress. The NGOs ranged from the Religious Action Committee of Reform Judaism, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States, to the National Association of Evangelicals, to the Uighur-American Association (representing the largely Muslim Uighur people in China).

Many human rights organizations are avowedly secular, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. This secular identity helps such organizations avoid skepticism about a hidden religious agenda, erecting fewer barriers to collaboration with secular entities, and allows them to work with all victims of persecution rather than those of a particular faith group. Furthermore, they have easier access to partnerships and funding from nonreligious sources, including large philanthropic foundations and governments.

Gathering and Disseminating Information

In repressive climates, where speech and press freedoms are also restricted, information about religious freedom abuses is often difficult to obtain. Many religious freedom NGOs work with on-the-ground contacts—including government officials, aid workers, and coreligionists—to obtain such information. NGOs must take steps to determine the veracity of the information they receive.

After obtaining reliable testimony, NGOs disseminate information about abuses in a number of formats: e-mail campaigns, public presentations, reports, press releases, editorials, and consultations with relevant government agencies and international bodies. Examples of NGOs that gather and disseminate information include Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Compass Direct, and Open Doors.

Generating Pressure and Influencing Policy

NGOs can also attempt to generate pressure against repressive governments in the hope of bringing about changes to policies affecting religious freedom. Examples of such NGOs include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission, Jubilee Campaign, Human Rights First, International League for Human Rights, and the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Another aspect of influencing policy is working to make religious freedom a more prominent issue in foreign policy considerations. The passage of the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 made significant advances toward this goal in the United States, guaranteeing religious freedom’s prominent role in American foreign policy. However, many Western policymakers remain generally uninformed about religious freedom and, more basically, about the role of religion in international affairs, a topic that is generally avoided in traditional foreign service courses. For this reason, some NGOs are working to increase the understanding of the importance of religion and religious freedom in foreign affairs. This work may take the form of journal articles, lecture series, conferences, and dialogues that highlight the importance of religious freedom in foreign policy considerations. Examples of NGOs that perform this function include the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, and the Council on Faith and International Affairs.

Assisting Victims of Persecution

Some religious freedom NGOs focus their efforts on supplying aid to victims of persecution. This aid can take many forms: legal aid to assist victims in filing claims with relevant agencies and courts; material assistance to families of victims who have been imprisoned or killed; medical or mental care for a religious believer who has been tortured; religious resources, including sacred texts and teaching materials that are illegal or too expensive to obtain normally; and assisting religious refugees with documentation, referrals, sponsorship, and resettlement. Their assistance may also take more abstract forms, such as organizing moments of silence or days of prayer dedicated to those persecuted for their faith.

These activities are often viewed with suspicion or hostility by foreign governments and local communities. Traditional societies sometimes view religious minorities as traitors who have adopted a foreign culture, undermining indigenous culture and power structures. When these believers then receive aid from foreign organizations, this view is reinforced, confirming suspicions and creating resentment. Providing religious resources can be controversial, as it can jeopardize the safety of the recipients and, in some cases, violate the laws of the state. Examples of NGOs that aid victims of persecution include Christian Freedom International, Christian Solidarity International, International Christian Concern, Iranian Christians International, Physicians for Human Rights, and Voice of the Martyrs.

Mediating Religious Freedom Conflicts

Some NGOs seek to mediate conflicts between religious communities and the governments that repress them. These NGOs seek to persuade governments to protect religious freedom, and to persuade religious believers to act in ways that do not unnecessarily provoke government suspicion or trigger a reaction.

In this kind of work NGOs quietly build relationships with key leaders and create a climate of trust. This relationship allows NGOs to offer direct critiques of government actions at strategic moments, many of which are private conversations rather than public meetings. NGOs may also host nonthreatening events, such as scholarly conferences and policy forums in which non-Western scholars and practitioners subtly argue the importance of religious freedom. Such strategies give governments ownership of the concepts of religious freedom, helping them to understand its importance and implement it.

NGOs stressing conflict resolution must also work closely with religious groups, being careful not to alienate them through an inappropriately close relationship with the government. This kind of quiet work is unconventional, and thus NGOs conducting it are far less common than those described above. One example is the Institute for Global Engagement.

Developing and Promoting Rule of Law

Many countries that repress religious freedom do not have a well-developed legal system and tradition of rule of law. As a result, laws and treaties protecting religious freedom are sometimes ignored or arbitrarily interpreted in whatever way officials choose. When religious freedom violations occur, victims rarely have access to legal representation, and if they do, they cannot be guaranteed a fair trial. As a result, strengthening countries’ legal systems and providing legal assistance is important to improving religious freedom in the long term as a right that is firmly upheld in law.

One common strategy is filing lawsuits on behalf of victims in international tribunals or the domestic courts of offending countries. These lawsuits provide expert legal representation to victims who might otherwise not have access. They also raise the profile of such cases, leveraging popular opinion against the government and thus indirectly applying pressure. Another strategy is to work from within to develop the legal system’s capacity. Activities may include assisting in curriculum development at local law schools, providing training for lawyers and judges, or working with national lawmakers to develop religious freedom laws that are in accordance with international standards. Examples of this kind of NGO include the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Advocates International.


 H. Knox Thames, Chris Seiple, and Amy Rowe, International Religious Freedom Advocacy; A Guide to Organizations, Law, and NGOs (Waco, TX: Baylor Unversity Press, 2009).

H. Knox Thames is Director of Policy and Research for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Washington, DC. Chris Seiple is President of the Institute for Global Engagement, Arlington, Virginia. Amy Rowe served as Director of Country Programs at the Institute for Global Engagement, Arlington, Virginia, until 2007.