International Religious Freedom: Toward a Model of Transatlantic Cooperation

October 8, 2015

Several European countries, the EU, and Canada have recently begun a more systematic treatment of international religious freedom in their foreign policies. The United States has done so since 1998 because of the passage that year of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). In theory, therefore, the potential exists for transatlantic cooperation in promoting religious freedom globally.

However, differences among Western democracies are significant, both with respect to the meaning and value of religious freedom itself, and to the question of how to promote it as an aspect of foreign policy. This dialogue—the first in a year-long series on IRFA policy—aimed to identify these differences and find ways to accommodate or overcome them in the urgent task of advancing international religious freedom.
This day-long event began with a keynote address on religion and modernity by renowned sociologist Peter Berger, followed by responses from Os Guinness and Walter Russell Mead. Then panel discussions featured leading voices from the academic and policy worlds, including Anne Leahy, Sue Breeze, Mustafa Akyol, Monica Toft, and Pasquale Ferrara. Speakers discussed the challenges and best practices for promoting religious freedom abroad; innovative ways to construct a united, transatlantic coalition; and the consequences of religious freedom, including its relationship to violence and extremism. The day concluded with a rousing speech by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, who spoke about the lessons other countries could draw from the American experience, as well as opportunities for improving the lives of religious minorities worldwide.

This conference is a partnership of two major initiatives. The first is a year-long series of events on policy associated with the International Religious Freedom Act, which will produce a revised edition of The Future of U.S. International Religious Freedom Policy. This series is sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University (together with its partner, the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University), The Review of Faith & International Affairs at the Institute for Global Engagement, and the Institute on Culture, Religion & World Affairs at Boston University.

The second is a “Bridging Voices” grant from the British Council, awarded to Dan Philpott of the Center for Civil and Human Rights of the University of Notre Dame and to Fabio Petito of the School of Global Studies of the University of Sussex, in partnership with the European University Institute and the University of Milan, to foster a transatlantic partnership on religious freedom. This is the second of two policy dialogues on the subject, the first having taken place at Wilton Park, United Kingdom in February 2015. Generously co-sponsoring the dialogues are the International Center for Law and Religion Studies (BYU) and McGill University’s Birks Forum on the World’s Religions. The conference was followed on October 9 by a close-door policy dialogue which focused on the impact of Western religious freedom policies as well as the state of religious freedom in various regions of the world.

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