US pushes international religious freedom alliance

During the United National General Assembly in New York in September, US President Trump devoted much more time to a conference on his new initiative to set up an International Religious Freedom Alliance than to a Climate Summit.

The alliance is supposed to bring together ‘like-minded countries … to defend the unalienable rights of all human beings to believe, or not to believe, whatever it is that they choose’.

The person Trump handpicked to be Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, former Kansas governor Sam Brownback, was in Kathmandu this weekend to meet government officials, religious leaders, and inspect the US Embassy-funded repairs on the Krishna Mandir damaged in the 2015 earthquake.

Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback with Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali during his visit to Nepal. Photo: SAM BROWNBACK/TWITTER

Given the increasing polarisation between the United States and China, Nepali Times asked him in an interview if his trip was more about Tibet and less about Nepal.

“This visit is about Nepal. It has Tibet ties, because Nepal is a major transit point for Tibetan refugees, and Nepal has historically been very good about letting them come and transit,” Brownback replied. “Some of that has slowed under pressure from the Chinese, and I had some discussions with the Foreign Minister and others about it.”

Isn’t US criticism of religious persecution in rival powers like China harsher than on geopolitical allies? Brownback makes a distinction between state-sponsored persecution of minorities in some countries like China, and rising communal tensions as in India. Besides, he added, the US is critical of religious persecution in Saudi Arabia despite it being a key ally.

From left, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, US Ambassador to Nepal Randy Berry, Mayor of Patan Chiribabu Maharjan and Director of Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust Rohit Ranjitkar oversee repairs on Krishna Mandir damaged in the 2015 earthquake. Photo: RANDY BERRY/TWITTER

“We are sensitive to the criticism, and we try to make all our calls in this area factually based,” says Brownback, who was on a tour of the region that included Kathmandu, Dharmashala and Bangkok. “That is why we want to get the International Religious Freedom Alliance up because we would like a much larger group internationally that would push and establish some basic standards.”

However, is it not a bit awkward for an American official to be going around the world preaching religious tolerance given what is happening back home?

“I usually raise it myself,” replied Brownback, who was governor of Kansas when two Indians were shot in his state. “I have had Jewish people killed, or white supremacists come after Somalis, but in each case I went out of my way to be assure those communities this does not represent American values. Religious freedom is in our DNA, we were founded by successive waves of people fleeing religious persecution.”

Brownback admitted that the United States is serious about protecting religious freedom, learning lessons from its own history: “We are an example of how difficult this is to do. We have own tragic past in the way we treated minorities. And if you get it wrong, religious differences are a real rocket fuel to propel angry mobs.”

A recent international Pew survey showed that 80% of the world’s population lived in a religiously restricted environment. Religious persecution, intolerance, as well as manipulation of religion is on the rise around the world.

“We believe that everybody everywhere is entitled to do with their own soul what they want to do. This is their fundamental right,” Brownback said, “and a government’s role is to protect religious freedom not to manipulate religion.”

Brownback was appreciative of Nepal being an open society compared to other countries in the region. “I want to really tip my hat to the Nepali people who have fought to maintain this openness.”

However he added: “The erosion of the practice (of the constitution) is concerning to us. You want religious freedom, but also social harmony. Religion is a fundamental human right. If you are qualifying it, that is when I start raising questions, this is not a long-term sustainable path given how much integration is taking place in the world.”

Brownback does not like the word ‘secularism’, and being a person of faith, says he is prefers to work for a society where there is the freedom to practice all religions peacefully.

He also has no patience with conversion using coercion and inducements, and says he has told officials in India and Nepal bribing people to convert is a no-no. “If you know of groups doing that, I hope you will tell us about it,” he said.

But what Brownback said he is most worried about is those in power using religion to fan populism. “Faith can be wonderful, but it can be manipulated, and that can be very dangerous. Religion has not declined as a flashpoint, in fact it has increased. Why should a government protect a faith? Shouldn’t a government protect a right? It is your choice what you decide with your soul.”

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