PROVO — Responding to religious freedom crises around the world starts with strong religious commitment in believers' daily lives, according to law and religion experts gathered at Brigham Young University's Religious Freedom Annual Review.
"We need to be serious believers if we’re going to convince the world that religious freedom matters," said Kent Hill, executive director of the Religious Freedom Institute, during his remarks Friday afternoon.
He and his fellow panelists admitted it may seem like a simplistic approach in the face of mounting challenges to conscience rights. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 79 percent of the world's population lived in a country with high or very high restrictions on or hostilities toward religious beliefs and practices, the Pew Research Center reported earlier this year.
However, deep personal faith energizes other practical steps toward addressing religious freedom violations, such as contacting policymakers or building understanding through interfaith friendships.
"We're not called to do everything but each of us has a certain capacity to do something," Hill said.
Religious individuals can explore their own traditions for calls for peace and then help others do the same, said W. Cole Durham, founding director of BYU's International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
"Religions should mine their own resources and come to understand them more deeply," he said, noting that Muslim leaders are increasingly undertaking this type of effort in order to counter the message of extremists using their faith to advocate for violence.
People of faith can also contact political leaders about the importance of prioritizing religious freedom in our interactions with leaders of other countries, said Katrina Lantos Swett, a former commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Katrina Lantos Swett, a former commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, speaks at BYU's Religious Freedom Annual Review. | Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News
"Tell them that you care about religious freedom and think advancing this right is in our national interest," she said.
The panelists said they have seen the value of connecting on an emotional level with people who don't understand or care about religious freedom, rather than relying on general arguments about why related protections benefit everyone.
"We must be ready to show our heart and show the sincerity of our faith when we are trying to share value of religious freedom and tolerance," Swett said. "People are much more likely to consider us credible interlocutors if they get that we have deep beliefs, too."
The panel discussion focused on the best responses to international religious freedom violations, which come in many forms. In dozens of countries across the globe, minority faith groups are forced to register their activities with the government or abandon their houses of worship in the midst of interreligious violence.
"If you look at what’s happening day by day, you will see similar kinds of things" everywhere, Durham said.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2017 Annual Report highlights rising anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, as well as the threat of blasphemy laws, which enable people to be arrested and even put to death for a perceived statement against a dominant religion.
The commission works with the U.S. government to seek solutions, as well as with leaders in the State Department tasked with outreach to religious communities.
The panelists expressed disappointment with the fact that the Trump administration has yet to appoint an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
"This is a tragedy that we don’t even think we can do anything enough to get somebody in place with authority to do something," Hill said.
In the midst of a global refugee crisis and the Islamic State's reign of terror, it's understandable that some Americans feel helpless, the panelists said. But by turning to their own faith for spiritual nourishment, they can gain the strength to keep working toward a better world.
"I think the great temptation for people who see a big problem is to despair and to decide that they really can't do anything," Hill said. "I would point out that despair is not a Christian virtue."
The Religious Freedom Annual Review is a two-day conference that brings together leading lawyers, scholars and activists to discuss and debate conscience rights. It's sponsored by the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
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