Recent developments in the Middle East have brought the issue of persecution of religious minorities to the forefront of media attention - particularly international media. In response, there is an increasing surge in advocacy campaigns and governmental responses to protect, or highlight, the persecution of religious minorities and individuals on the basis of their choices on matters of religion or faith.
While such a renewed focus on the issue of Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) is truly welcome, it is often unreflective of what has been done internationally on the topic over the last decade. This is due to a lack of reflection on both the complex nature of religious persecution in today’s world, and reflection on religious freedom advocacy (RFA) itself. The outcome of this may be ineffectual campaigns, wasted resources and counterproductive efforts, which undermine long term protection of religious minorities and flourishing religious freedom.
This briefing unpacks some of these points to galvanise a needed conversation on the future of religious freedom advocacy, highlighting the following key points:
There is an immediate need to untangle RFA from domestic politics in North America and Europe, if a primary aim is to help individuals living under persecution.
All RFA efforts must be glocal: while global in awareness, outlook and advocacy strategies should be engrained locally in their aims, parameters and chosen strategies. Efforts cannot separate what happens at 'home' with what happens in far away places.
RFA cannot simply depend upon strategies that focus on states, formal international structures and naming-shaming publicity, as persecution is increasingly caused by non-state actors, and wider social hostilities. Thus, RFA needs to develop “soft tools” as well as alternative advocacy targets that may influence particular issues. RFA should engage in reaching out to societies that see persecution as a key aspect of its future.
RFA is weakened by the majority of stakeholders that continue to emerge from single faith traditions, and the need for neutral RFA is more imminent than ever.
Most effective RFA strategies involve multiple partners beyond mono faith, national or political groups. They often follow quiet advocacy and sensitive publicity, and use international law as their language and point of appeal.
RFA has to position itself more effectively in the wider efforts of their states, such as in foreign aid and development, conflict, stability and peace-building, and countering violent extremism portfolios.
Further academic research examining the reasons persecution happens, and how it can be addressed, as well as impact of foreign lead RFA on countries that witness persecution, is urgently needed.
RFA needs a new adaptive language to challenge negative perceptions and move the conversations to new ground. This is particularly the case for language of “freedom”, which is often understood as a threat in societies with strong cultural and religious identities that cherish collectivism.