Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Ambassador Sam Brownback, left, delivers a speech about religious freedom during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah, on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — For the last three months, the Deseret News spoke with top religious freedom advocates and researched efforts to address persecution across the globe. Here are six key takeaways from that work.

1. Religious freedom is threatened around the world.

Seventy years ago, world leaders declared that religious freedom was a universal human right. But that statement hasn't amounted to much on the ground.

More than 80 percent of the world's population live under "high or very high" religious restrictions, according to Pew Research Center. This figure is rising even as efforts to address it increase.

2. The U.S. is religious freedom's most prominent cheerleader.

Twenty years ago, American leaders decided that something had to change. Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, adopting a more thorough approach to tracking and responding to religious persecution around the world.

The legislation created the role of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, an office dedicated to international religious freedom at the State Department and the independent, bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

"No other government comes close to providing the detailed and largely accurate reports on what is happening abroad," said Thomas Farr, who served as founding director of the international religious freedom office.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Ambassador Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedom during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah, on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.

3. Thorough reports aren't enough.

The legislation was significant, but the government's religious freedom efforts are still less than ideal, according to former State Department officials.

Diplomats fail to reach out to religious communities. Potential sanctions on countries that limit religious practice are waived. Religious freedom advocates don't have enough power to push meaningful change.

"The job of U.S. foreign policy is not simply to issue reports," Farr said. "It is to advance religious freedom, which requires more than identifying the problem."

4. Sam Brownback is fighting for a more effective approach.

Sam Brownback, who previously served as governor of Kansas and a senator for the state, is the first former congressman to hold the ambassador role. His supporters say he has the political savvy to enter the State Department's "slow-motion train wreck" and make a difference.

Qiling Wang, Deseret News
Ambassador Sam Brownback delivers a speech about religious freedom during the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School in Provo, Utah, on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018.

Since taking office 15 months ago, he's traveled the world to meet with victims of religious persecution and some of the people who've harmed them. He's made a sales pitch for religious freedom, promising that it strengthens economies.

5. But there are limits to Brownback's power.

Brownback's high-profile meetings and statements condemning attacks on people of faith are important, but they still rarely lead to meaningful policy action.

He, like other ambassadors, is at the mercy of his superiors. It's up to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the White House to decide which countries face sanctions and when religious persecution should be considered genocide.

6. Religious freedom advocates are worried about what the future holds.

Still, many religious freedom advocates say Brownback is making a notable difference for people of all faiths and no faith around the world. He is building an international coalition to promote religious freedom.

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However, early successes won't last if faith-related tensions persist on the homefront. Americans are losing support in religious freedom, and it will take more than Brownback's passion to change their minds.

"There's an effort abroad that seems positive, but the reality at home doesn’t seem so positive," said James Patton, president of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. "If the administration were as vocal about protecting religious freedom here in the domestic sphere, I think it would have a beneficial effect."