Joseph D'Souza: Why religious liberty is the most pressing issue facing our world today

This week, hundreds of foreign officials, human rights activists and NGO leaders will gather in Washington to discuss what many of us believe is the most pressing issue in the world today: religious liberty.

It’s the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, an initiative the State Department launched last year to address the growing threat against religious liberty across the world. The ministerial is a timely effort: more than seven in 10 people in the world live in countries with high restrictions or hostilities against religion.

Having been an advocate for religious liberty for decades, I am encouraged the State Department is prioritizing defending this most basic human right. The ministerial is an opportunity to recalibrate bilateral relations between nations, which for too long have been driven by economic interests at the expense of human rights.

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For example, despite its long and well-documented history of human rights abuses and curtailment of religious freedom, Saudi Arabia still remains in America’s good graces. I have written before about how the Saudi Kingdom has provided millions of dollars to fund mosques overseas – including in the West – while at the same time denying religious liberty to Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and other faith groups who live in the country.

The disastrous conflict in Yemen combined with the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and Washington Post columnist, seems to have finally prodded Congress to put pressure on President Trump to reevaluate America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean cutting all diplomatic relations or forsaking one of America’s key allies in the Middle East.

A viable solution is including international reciprocal religious freedom laws in bilateral relations. A few years ago Rep. Dave Brat, Va., introduced in Congress the Religious Freedom International Reciprocity Enhancement Act. The bill would prohibit foreign nationals from other countries that repress religious freedom to fund the promotion of a religion. In other words, if Saudi Arabia wanted to build mosques or send money to promote Islamic Wahhabism, it would have to allow churches to be built in the Kingdom.

More than seven in 10 people in the world live in countries with high restrictions or hostilities against religion.

Unfortunately, Rep. Brat’s act seems to have gotten stuck and forgotten in Congress. It’s been three years since the act was referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, and we haven’t heard an update since.

When the West allows its foreign policy to be driven by only economic interests it loses its ability to hold other nations accountable. China is currently running what might be the largest internment camps in the world. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang have been sent to “re-education camps” to stomp out their religious identities. Yet many Muslim nations have remained mute on the issue.

In particular, Saudi Arabia – the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites – has not condemned China. In fact, according to media reports, in a recent visit to China, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security.” Although the Saudi prince did not mention the Uighurs, some have interpreted his words as an implicit approval of China’s repression campaign in Xinjiang. The fact that China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest trade partner might give anyone enough reason to believe so.

As Prince Salman’s recent example shows, human rights has become an unpleasant topic that is best avoided or left for diplomats to work out behind scenes. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our leaders need to understand religious freedom is actually good for business.

Economists who have studied the relationship between economics and religious liberty have pointed that countries benefit when there’s religious liberty in their societies.

“Economic freedom and religious freedom are thus mutually complementary, suggesting that countries with religious freedom have a comparative advantage for adapting to new economic opportunities,” writes Carmel Chiswick, research professor of economics at George Washington University.

The reverse is also true: religious intolerance is not good for business.

Brian J. Grim, who co-authored an academic article on the impact of religious freedom on economy, says, “Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies.”

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Grim also notes that the oppressive and violent environment created by religious intolerance causes young entrepreneurs to leave their home countries and take their talents elsewhere. Thus curtailment of the right of faith robs a country of its economic future.

As government and civil society leaders gather in Washington this week, my hope is that the Ministerial will help put religious liberty and human rights at the top of our foreign relations agendas. If we want to live in free, prosperous and peaceful societies, we must defend and promote the fundamental right of faith of every individual.