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Ongoing religious freedom advocacy difficult, but often effective, U.S. official says

Veteran advocate Thames on sway of private citizens, faith groups, NGOs

Ongoing religious freedom advocacy difficult, but often effective, U.S. official says

Expanding religious liberty worldwide requires citizen participation, panelists at the 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom said April 24. From left, Knox Thames, director of Policy and Research for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Ambassador Robert Seiple, president of the Center for America's First Freedom; and Richard T. Foltin, director of National and Legislative Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. [photo: Ansel Oliver]

When veteran religious liberty advocate Knox Thames addressed the 7th World Congress for Religious Freedom last week, he held a piece of rubble from a Seventh-day Adventist church building in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, demolished some years ago by government authorities. 

Thames, who directs Policy and Research for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he has seen first-hand the results of the current global religious liberty crisis while representing the U.S. Department of State worldwide.

Yet, at the same time, Thames sounded a note of optimism. “I’m not without hope that religious liberty advocates can make a real difference,” he told an audience of 900 religious liberty advocates, government officials, scholars and legal experts in the Dominican Republic to examine the influence of secularism on religious expression.    

Thames illustrated the power of advocacy by chronicling the state of religious restrictions in Turkmenistan.

After a decade of advocacy by individuals and organizations, the U.S. and other governments were motivated to pressure Turkmenistan to ease restrictions, Thames said. Today, minority faith groups such as the Adventist Church face eased registration requirements in the central Asian country, he said.

“I have seen that the efforts of individuals, faith groups and non-governmental organizations can save lives, change laws and expand religious freedom,” Thames said. He warned that ongoing advocacy is difficult and results are never assured. He also advised advocates to act with discernment and persistence, and to reject the temptation to exaggerate their cause or to speak without knowing all the facts.

Later, Thames joined president of the Center for America’s First Freedom Robert Seiple and director of National and Legislative Affairs for the American Jewish Committee Richard T. Foltin to discuss the role of grassroots advocacy.

Whether it’s involvement in local religious freedom issues or helping to change the situation for believers in Laos or Vietnam, the presence of non-governmental organizations and private citizens is essential to the promotion and protection of religious liberty, the panel said.

“Governments can be very, very helpful. But ultimately it has to be people who are committed to this for the duration,” Seiple said. “Never expect more from the government than the government is prepared to do.”

Thames noted that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s budget is limited, so they are “delighted to partner with NGOs and religious organizations” to monitor religious freedom on the ground overseas. The commission exists to inform the U.S. Congress on issues of religious freedom worldwide.

While different organizations can and do united on common issues, having “space” for differences of opinion is also vital, Foltin said.

“To get your voice heard, you have to leverage your presence by working in coalition,” he said. “What’s important is that there’s a relationship that allows us to work together.”

And whether the issue is local or global, Seiple added, achieving results can often take far longer than expected. He noted that it was only after decades of work in Laos and Vietnam that NGOs began to see positive results. And in some countries, where an American diplomat may have difficulty in presenting a wide range of issues, the NGO that focuses on global engagement in the religious freedom sphere can often be more warmly received, he said.

All three experts stressed the need for NGOs and religious liberty advocates to get young people involved. Thames reaches out via the Twitter messaging service; Seiple commended youth involvement; and Foltin observed that it’s also necessary to let young people express differing opinions as part of the engagement process.