Amid pervasive talk of a “divided America,” it can feel nearly impossible to find a subject that sparks genuine bipartisan action. In the domestic context, the issue of “religious freedom” is no exception; the words alone can send partisans to their respective barricades with no truce in sight.
But remarkably, the cause of International Religious Freedom, or IRF, has managed to bring an array of communities and political perspectives together to defend freedom of religion, conscience and belief for the billions of people who live in places where this fundamental right is routinely trampled upon.
What do we mean by freedom of religion, conscience and belief? The answer: Nothing more or less than the profound right of all people to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience. This belief is embedded in the very DNA of the great American experiment, and it is an essential component of human dignity and human rights. IRF advocates are as robust in their defense of the rights of humanists and atheists in Iran or Saudi Arabia as they are in advocating for persecuted Christians, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Muslim Uyghurs and all others who face discrimination for their beliefs.
The two of us embody the unifying nature of this cause. One of us is a Republican political leader who most recently served as the ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom. The other is a lifelong Democrat and past chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. There are plenty of things we disagree about, but we sing from the same hymnal when defending the conscience rights of all.
Because of our shared passion for defending this wellspring of human rights, for the last two years, we have convened a major international gathering in Washington, the IRF Summit, to bring together experts, lawmakers, activists, survivors, advocates and leaders to educate, elevate and advance the cause of religious freedom in every corner of the world.
Our bipartisanship is far from unique in this sphere, and it is a hallmark of the IRF Summit, where we have been honored to hear from leaders as disparate as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
On January 31, we will convene the third IRF Summit, immediately preceding the National Prayer Breakfast. We anticipate that this will be the most consequential summit to date, involving participants from dozens of countries and virtually every belief community worldwide. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will serve as our congressional co-chairs, helping continue the summit’s bipartisan tradition. In many contexts, this might seem like a minor miracle. In the cause of international religious freedom, such miracles are happening all the time.
The IRF Summit program reflects the diversity of this movement. Summit attendees will hear from USAID Administrator Samantha Power, World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley, actor and activist Penn Badgley, NBA athlete-turned-human-rights-advocate Enes Kanter Freedom; members of Congress from both sides of the aisle; Biden administration officials; imams, pastors, rabbis and priests; heads of prominent human rights groups; and leading faith-based civil society organizations.
In one of the most remarkable and uplifting aspects of the IRF Summit, we will even see often adversarial groups advocating for each other: Muslims speaking out against antisemitism; Christians defending the rights of their Muslim brothers and sisters; secular humanists advocating for the rights of their religious friends and neighbors; and vice versa. This is the power of freedom of religion, conscience and belief in action, and is inspiring to witness.
In this era of division, we urge leaders, organizations and individuals across all sectors of society to seek out those areas where there is still room for agreement and collaboration — among them international religious freedom. We hope many more will take up this cause with greater resolve and unity. The IRF community is growing each day, and the only requirement to join is a firm belief in the importance of this fundamental human right.