Statement from the Ministers’ Forum of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance 

The 31 Members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (“the Alliance”), held the first annual Ministers’ Forum on November 17, 2020, to coordinate action to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief around the world. Launched in Washington, D.C., in February 2020, the Alliance is a network of states working together to advance freedom of religion or belief.

Recognizing that freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief is under attack around the world, with studies indicating more than 80% of the global population lives in countries with restrictions on the free practice of faith and beliefs, threatening the freedom, safety, and livelihood of individuals around the world;

Recognizing also the challenge this presents to global stability, the launch of the Alliance in February 2020 demonstrates the resolve of countries from different regions, representing diverse political and religious backgrounds, to press for respect for freedom of religion or belief for all, consistent with our democratic values, respect for human dignity, and based on the principle that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated;

Taking note that religious freedom is essential for achieving peace and stability, and that when  freedom of religion or belief is protected, other rights and freedoms, including the right of peaceful assembly and freedoms of expression and association, also flourish, contributing directly to peace, stability, democracy, economic development, and the rule of law;

Recognizing that the impacts of pandemics, especially the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, are different across countries, regions, and demographic groups, and undue limitations on the right to freedom of religion or belief, including the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, have in some cases resulted in discrimination, scapegoating, and even violence in some communities;

Seeking to marshal the full power of our governments to cooperate to support freedom of religion or belief to urgently address these global challenges in a sustainable and inclusive manner, and acknowledging the importance of working closely with civil society, including faith-based organizations, and religious communities in any effort to advance freedom of religion or belief;

Complementing existing work on freedom of religion or belief within the United Nations and other competent multilateral and regional organizations and welcoming other international initiatives in addition to the Alliance, such as the annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (Poland hosted the third annual Ministerial on November 16-17, 2020), the International Contact Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief, the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, the Group of Friends of Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief, the international religious freedom roundtables, and others that collaboratively develop responses to these challenges;

Desiring to fully harness the collective strength of Alliance Members by having each lead and encourage new actions, according to their unique strengths and capabilities, to advance freedom of religion or belief around the world; and

Recognizing the importance of shared values and human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and democratic values in international cooperation,

We the below named Participants in the Alliance Ministers Forum declare that:

Freedom of religion or belief matters, for everyone, everywhere;

Freedom of religion or belief is an integral part of the international framework for human rights; and

Human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief, should be prioritized and pursued across all areas of international engagement, including diplomatic, economic, security, and development avenues.

Therefore, we intend to:

Recommit to the Declaration of Principles of the Alliance and its application, including upholding obligations under international law in general and under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights specifically relating to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief, including the right to hold any faith or belief, or none at all, and the freedom to change faith. Members also recommit to pursuing an inclusive approach, including cross-regional engagement, and to promoting other human rights indispensable for the full enjoyment of the freedom of religion or belief.

Advocate for the rights of individuals to believe or not believe.  Alliance Members plan to speak out for freedom of religion or belief for all, which includes the right of individuals to hold any belief or none, to change religion or belief and to manifest religion or belief, either alone or in community with others, in worship, observance, practice and teaching. Members intend to specifically oppose restrictions on the freedom to change one’s religion or belief, or to hold no belief, and demonstrate solidarity with persons victimized by such restrictions.

Press for the repeal of laws that penalize individuals or groups on the grounds of their religion or belief. Alliance Members  are committed to encouraging countries to repeal such laws, as such laws are inherently subjective, often result in human rights violations or abuses against members of both minority and majority communities, and often contribute to sectarianism and violent extremism. Enforcement of such laws unduly inhibits the exercise of the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and can lead to other human rights violations or abuses.

Enhance cooperation on joint advocacy. Alliance Members intend to build on existing mechanisms to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief, including identifying cases concerning people jailed for their religious views or advocacy; developing a rapid response mechanism to advocate for their release; and implementing innovative responses to longer-term challenges including legal barriers. Alliance Members intend to condemn all forms of violence and incitement to violence against persons based on religion or belief and unlawful attacks on places of worship and holy sites, either by state or by non-state actors, and call for perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Promote equitable treatment in the course of response to pandemics. Alliance Members are committed to rejecting discrimination on account of religion or belief in access to justice, education, housing, or employment, and to promoting measures to address such discrimination, including during times of the pandemic. Alliance Members call on all governments to facilitate equal access to all health care and essential needs assistance; provide accurate and reliable information about the nature and spread of the pandemic virus, mitigation measures, and equal access to treatments and eventual vaccines; condemn instances of scapegoating of religious communities for the spreading of the virus; and confirm that any restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion or belief  are established by law, are necessary to protect public safety, order or health, and are not discriminatory.

Focus on marginalized religious minorities in humanitarian and development assistance. Alliance Members recognize the world is experiencing an era of unprecedented humanitarian crises, generating large and growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons, and that religious identity (alone and when coupled with other factors such as ethnicity, race, gender, age and disability) often make entire communities victims in need of humanitarian assistance. Alliance Members intend to share best practices on encouraging and facilitating the participation and partnership of local and national religious communities, including faith-based organizations, as well as other key stakeholders such as governments and aid and development organizations, to enable marginalized vulnerable religious and belief minority groups in need to receive direct and non-discriminatory assistance for their survival and livelihood. Alliance Members also acknowledge that some marginalized minority religious or belief communities may be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Protect cultural heritage important to religious communities. Alliance Members intend to increase efforts to protect and preserve cultural heritage, including that of minority belief and religious communities, particularly in conflict zones, in accordance with their international legal obligations; and to preserve the cultural heritage of religious communities whose members have dwindled or emigrated. Alliance Members intend to assist impacted communities to secure, protect, restore, and/or stabilize their cultural heritage sites, and assist with efforts to restore cultural heritage sites including those of significance in conflict zones in a manner that rebuilds trust among faith communities.

Respond to genocide and other mass atrocities targeting religious minorities. Alliance Members intend to take appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, political and other available steps where they see populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, including where that population is targeted for its religious or non-religious convictions. Alliance Members intend to condemn any instances of hate speech, messages or narratives that promote violence against the holders of any religious or other beliefs or that foster intra- and inter-religious tensions, whether by government officials or non-state actors, and intend to encourage the regular evaluation of the needs of survivors of atrocities and their families, as well as voluntary contributions to help rebuild and heal traumatized communities and individuals.

Advocate for equal rights and protections for all, including members of religious minority groups. Alliance Members intend to promote the human rights of all, including Members of religious minority groups, dissenting Members from the majority faith, and non-believers. Alliance Members intend to emphasize that all persons should be equal under the law – regardless of an individual’s religion, beliefs or religious affiliation, or lack thereof – and encourage law enforcement officials to take measures to protect all persons, including members of religious minority groups, from harm or discriminatory acts on account of their faith or beliefs. In addition, Members intend to encourage teaching about the value of intra- and inter-faith understanding and collaboration, and promote a general understanding of world religions to reduce harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes.

Support religious communities’ ability to select leadership and freely organize. Alliance Members support the prerogative of religious communities to select, appoint, and replace their leadership and personnel in accordance with their respective requirements and standards. Alliance Members are committed to respecting the right of religious communities to establish and maintain freely accessible places of worship or assembly, as well as organize themselves according to their own hierarchical and institutional structure without undue interference.

Urge all parties concerned to safeguard places of worship against the foreseeable effects of an armed conflict and to refrain from any act or hostility directed against places of worship, in accordance with their international legal obligations.

Ensure technology is not used to repress/unduly restrict religious freedom. Alliance Members recognize that technology can help promote freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief and can connect religious communities separated during pandemics. At the same time, Alliance Members note with concern the use of technology to limit religious freedom and commit human rights violations and abuses. Alliance Members reject governments’ unlawful employment of technology to monitor the actions of individuals solely due to their religion or belief and repress entire religious communities. Freedom of expression and all other rights, which exist offline, should also be protected online.

Support the protection of members of religious and belief minority groups in conflict.  Alliance Members condemn all instances of persecution that target members of religious and belief minority groups in conflict, and intend to advocate the inclusion of faith and belief communities, where appropriate, in conflict prevention and resolution efforts. Alliance Members also support work that seeks to address the disproportionate impact that conflict can have on members of minority religious and belief groups.

Promote freedom of religion or belief and gender equality. Alliance Members recall that all individuals, including all women and girls, have a right to freedom of religion or belief. Alliance Members call on competent actors to actively engage with states to repeal laws that subject any individuals to religiously justified acts of violence or discriminatory policies or practices carried out by state or non-state actors. Alliance Members intend to engage with relevant stakeholders, including religious communities and civil society organizations, which advocate for gender equality and the human rights of all, to challenge the misuse and abuse of religious doctrine and promote the right to gender equality and non-discrimination. In this regard, the Sustainable Development Goals and agenda 2030 can serve as a critical framework to promote the freedom of religion or belief for all individuals and to help eliminate discrimination against all individuals on the grounds of their religion or belief.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future