The contrast was poignant and powerful. As we sat in September with a global gathering of parliamentarians in the majestic Bundestag in Berlin, we recalled how more than 80 years ago, Germany’s chancellor had extinguished freedom and begun sowing the seeds for the Holocaust. On that same September day, we watched German Chancellor Angela Merkel stand in this historic seat of her country’s Parliament and repudiate this genocidal past by denouncing violations of religious freedom worldwide.
There is plenty to denounce. Billions of people live in countries that perpetrate or tolerate severe religious freedom abuses. Such abuses range from restrictions on building houses of worship to detaining and torturing people based on their religion to perpetrating murder and even genocide, which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) commits against Yazidis, Christians, Shi’a Muslims and others in Iraq and Syria.
The stakes are high, and not just for religious freedom. When governments brutally repress entire groups, such as Muslims in parts of Russia or China, it can be a recipe for frustration, discontent, instability, and in some cases violence.
As members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we see a global crisis in need of a global answer. We were in Berlin precisely for that purpose, participating in the third meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB), a remarkable and blossoming grassroots coalition to address this problem worldwide.
This month marks the IPPFoRB’s second anniversary. Gathering in November 2014 at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, more than 30 parliamentarians from various countries formed this network and signed a historic Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief (Oslo Charter) pledging to advance this pivotal right for all. Its second meeting, held in New York in September 2015, included 100 parliamentarians from more than 50 nations as well as diplomats and religious leaders.
The Oslo Charter is based on Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which reads as follows:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
This voluntary network’s approach may be summed up in the following steps:
- Bring together as many parliamentarians as possible from across the globe committed to advancing freedom of religion or belief.
- Identify countries plagued by religious freedom violations and jointly respond by raising concerns with and seeking improvements from responsible governments.
- Share with each other the information parliamentarians need to educate, inform, and persuade their own people and governments to act in freedom’s cause, and support other parliamentarians around the world who stand up for religious freedom at personal risk to themselves.
- Build regional groups of parliamentarians committed to combatting religious persecution and promoting religious freedom.
In Berlin, we saw accomplished and committed legislators from 60 nations and diverse political and religious backgrounds working together. Among them was a Christian legislator from majority-Muslim Pakistan, who has been serving for 14 years and concentrating on women’s issues and matters of forced conversion. We met a former parliamentarian from Burma, a Buddhist-majority nation, who had been elected to its parliament but had his citizenship revoked and thus was precluded from running again because he was a member of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority. And we met an inspirational parliamentarian from Iraq, a member of its persecuted Yazidi minority.
Since IPPFoRB’s inception, its parliamentarians have written advocacy letters to heads of state and other high officials of countries that are serious religious freedom violators, including Burma, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Sudan, and Vietnam.
In August of this year, a small group of religiously diverse parliamentarians from five continents made its first fact-finding and solidarity visit, traveling to Burma, a nation emerging from 50 years of military rule. There they met with government officials, members of parliament, and religious and civil society groups, confronted religious freedom violations, and discussed concrete and workable solutions.
It is one thing for one nation or its officials to advocate for this fundamental freedom, as the United States has done for many years. But it is quite another for people from many nations to stand together in this cause. When parliamentarians across borders and oceans join together, it sends an unmistakable message: religious freedom matters, not just to one nation or culture, but to all of humanity.
This was the most welcome message that echoed throughout the halls of the historic Bundestag.
Jackie Wolcott and Sandra Jolley are commissioners at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).