International Religious Freedom Day: Not to Be Overlooked

October 27, 2021

October 27th is observed each year as International Religious Freedom Day, recalling the signing of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA). This landmark piece of legislation, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, committed the United States in its foreign policy “to condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion.”

Grounded in the inherent worth and dignity of every human person, religious freedom protects “the right of all persons to believe, speak, and act – individually and in community with others, in private and in public – in accord with their understanding of ultimate truth.” While freedom of religion was already enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other international documents, IRFA gave new attention and resources to the advancement of this fundamental freedom.  

Far from an exclusively American concern, in the 23 years since the passage of IRFA, numerous other countries have joined the fight for international religious freedom. 

New mechanisms for collaboration are taking root. Initiatives such as the next Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (to be held July 2022 in London) and the International Religious Freedom and Belief Alliance have created space for coordinated action among governments and civil society actors. Legislators from some 100 countries have joined forces through the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Civil society-led efforts of all shapes and sizes crisscross the globe as part of a multi-faceted global effort to promote religious freedom for everyone, everywhere. 

The challenges are massive. As the Pew Forum’s latest report on restrictions on religion notes, some 80% of the world’s population live in countries with severe restrictions on religion. Religious freedom concerns are present in major global crises from Afghanistan and Nigeria, to China and Iraq. Fragile progress, such as has been seen in recent years in Sudan, can quickly vanish.

Strategic action and leadership are vital to address these challenges. Yesterday (October 26th), the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for Rashad Hussain to serve as the next Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. The Senate should move quickly to approve his nomination so that he can lead U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom, working alongside the United Kingdom, and others. 

The cause of religious freedom is too important to neglect. International Religious Freedom Day must not be overlooked.