Interview: Knox Thames on the U.S. Efforts to Advance Religious Freedom Globally

Knox Thames is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement and Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He previously served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations. He is writing a book on 21st-century strategies to combat religious persecution.

TalkAbout: Why is religious freedom an important part of U.S. foreign policy?

Knox Thames: The promotion of freedom of religion or belief, internationally, is a reflection of American values and history. Many of the first European settlers were religious minorities who came to North America because they were fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They were looking for a place where they could freely practice their beliefs and live out their faith, and they found that here in North America. It’s been a part of the American narrative from the very beginning. Once our Republic was established, our Constitution was written, and our Bill of Rights was created, the very first of ten amendments, the First Amendment, was created protecting freedom of religion or belief and preventing the government from interfering into the practice of religion. It was that framework that has served our country very well over 245 years. We have tremendous religious liberty here in the United States. It’s not perfect. But it has continually improved as we’ve become increasingly diverse religiously, ethnically, to allow everyone to pursue truth as their conscience leads.

Now, in the late 1990s, there was a sense in our Congress, that this core American value was not being represented in our foreign relations—in our diplomacy. And so Congress passed a groundbreaking bill called the International Religious Freedom Act that mandated the promotion and protection of international religious freedom as a foreign policy priority of the United States. It passed our Congress unanimously. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed. It was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. For over the past 20 years at our State Department, we’ve had a special ambassador at large who’s been the leading diplomat to promote this issue supported by a special office on international religious freedom, addressing and reporting on conditions in every country around the world, so that the United States can encourage reform where it’s needed, can press for the alleviation of persecution, can advocate for those who are being punished just for wanting to live out their faith as your  conscience leads. So I’m proud of our country’s work in this space. It’s an American distinctive, and it’s one that’s desperately needed, because as we know, the global trend lines for enjoying freedom of religion or belief are very troubling.

TalkAbout: What are the differences between religious freedom ensured by the First Amendment and religious freedom promoted by the U.S. government globally?

KT: You know, the language of the First Amendment came out in 1789. It’s written in sort of an older English. It says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. And then the commitment goes on to say the government cannot abridge freedom of speech, the press, the right of people to assemble or petition the government if they have a grievance. In contrast, if you look at the international standards, it’s written in more modern language because it was a development after World War II.

I always like to point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) because it is really the ultimate definition of religious freedom. The UDHR was a groundbreaking moment in human history, where for the first time, the international community agreed that rights are vested in individuals and are not held by governments. Really up until World War II, governments controlled the rights of their citizens. And after the horrors of the Holocaust, the murdering of millions of Jews because of their religion or ethnicity, and other people as well, the international community realized that rights are held by individuals and the role of states is to be a guarantor of those rights.

When you compare our First Amendment from 1789 with Article 18 of the UDHR from 1948, the language is really incomparable, but the same sort of components are there.

When you look at religious freedom language at the international level, the key provision is Article 18 of the UDHR saying that: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community, with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching practice, worship, and observance.

So, when you compare our First Amendment from 1789 with Article 18 of the UDHR from 1948, the language is really incomparable, but the same sort of components are there. It’s an individual right to pursue truth as one’s conscience leads; there’s no role for government to play in deciding what is truth. In a religious sense, individuals are free to manifest that belief peacefully, alone or in a community; they can share their beliefs, they can teach others, they can meet for worship. They also have the right to hold no belief; that’s a very important component. And they have the right to change their belief. And I think now as we look at the 21st century and the situation for global persecution, the language of Article 18, is even more important because it’s such a specific enunciation of all the different components of what it means to enjoy religious freedom.

TalkAbout: Is this a path that America commits to alone or are other actors working on protecting international religious freedom?

KT: I think it’s important that the United States, as a superpower, work to advance human rights across the board for everybody everywhere. And with that comes promoting freedom of religion or belief. The law that Congress passed did create a special blacklist of the worst violators of religious freedom, called the “countries of particular concern.” The State Department every year decides which countries are particularly severe violators of religious freedom, where it’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious like North Korea, China, Eritrea.

Meeting with Jewish community leaders in Tashkent in June 2018

This is a very powerful diplomatic tool that the United States government can use to encourage reform when perhaps there isn’t an incentive otherwise to improve things. In my time at the State Department, I was involved in negotiations with Sudan and Uzbekistan who were both on this blacklist. And that gave us an important lever to encourage them, especially when their new governments came in and wanted to turn the page. They wanted to have a better relationship with the United States because they were on this list that gave us leverage to encourage them to make desperately needed reforms on registration laws, on church building laws, on letting people out of jail, etc. So, I think that’s a unique part of how America does diplomacy on international religious freedom issues.

With respect to the European Union, I think it builds the same type of framework. Of course, diplomacy on behalf of the EU is more complicated because the EU includes 26 member states. But in 2013 they developed very important guidelines on promoting religious freedom, that help inform EU members and EU missions on what freedom of religion or belief is and what are the types of policy actions that EU members and the EU as an institution can take. That’s very important. They have also created the position of the Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief outside of the EU with Ján Figel’ holding the position first and then by Christos Stylianides. So now the EU has the point person who can really represent European values, which are, maybe, not identical, but very similar to American values, on the importance of freedom of religion or belief. So, now the United States has got a partner with whom we can work together to push this forward.

I can also mention the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; it also has a special point person working on promoting religious freedom in its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. It’s a regional organization with one of the most sophisticated commitments on freedom of religion or belief in the international system. They’re very developed, very comprehensive, and I think, generally, the OSCE region is trending upward. Yes, there are problems in Turkmenistan, and Russia, and Azerbaijan. But outside of those countries, the standards are pretty high, and OSCE countries are closer to the higher end of respect for the right to freedom of religion or belief than the lower end.

TalkAbout: In your view, why do authoritarian regimes attack religion and religious minorities? Is it just a way to strengthen their political power or are there some ideology or identity issues behind it?

KT: That is a great question. And the answer is situation-specific. In an authoritarian context, dictators are afraid of any independent activity, because they want to be in control. Their time horizon is not 100 years or 10 years, it’s tomorrow morning. Dictators, they want to make sure they’re alive and in charge when they wake up the next day. Any independent activity, be it political or religious, labor, whatever, they’re worried about. Many authoritarian governments remember the role of Pope John Paul II in Poland. They saw the power of religion; they saw the power of faith in pushing back against authoritarianism. And they have learned that lesson and cracked down on it.

So, at one end, they just have fear of losing power. But in other contexts, they do have animosity towards a different faith, a competing faith. And in many authoritarian contexts, there’s often an established faith that is more of a prop, a legitimizer of the dictatorship than an actual independent expression of religious truth. When missionaries in groups come in or evangelizing groups or just thought communities within the majority faith saying, why do we have to listen to this government stooge who’s dressed up as a religious leader, then a crackdown can happen. I’ve also seen it when proselytizing communities of a different faith background come in; the clampdown can be very severe. And individuals can be put in jail just for sharing their faith or for changing faith.

Dictators, they want to make sure they’re alive and in charge when they wake up the next day. Any independent activity, be it political or religious, labor, whatever, they’re worried about.

Think about the “crime of conversion.” I put that in quotation marks as an odd one, because the person who has broken the law is converted, is actually very happy because they have found truth and they want their life to go in a different direction. They’re actually quite pleased with their life choices. So, [behind the criminalization of conversion] it’s some idea of communal stability, communal harmony. I do understand that people changing religions can create social tension at a local level or at a family level. But that’s the reality of the 21st century. Ideas and information are flowing like never before in human history, people are moving and interacting in ways that were unfathomable 25 years ago. So we have to learn how to live with others that are different than us, we have to learn how to accept people choosing different life paths that are either a different religion or no religion. And if we can’t figure this out, then our futures may be one of conflict and human rights abuses.

TalkAbout: It’s quite often when improper state interference into religious freedom correlates with or is even inspired by exclusivist cultural attitudes hostile to religious minorities and/or new religions. Is it realistic to expect that such societies will fully accept international standards of freedom of religion or belief based on ideas of religion-state autonomy, pluralism, and personal freedom?

KT: It will take time. It’s not like a light switch: you just hit and one approach is radically changed to a different approach. Religion is such a personal thing, which is tied up into ideas of society and family. So it’s going to take a lot of work to prepare communities to deal with diversity. I think this is where education is so important that, in addition to promoting reading, writing, and mathematics, the international community adds a fourth component of tolerance education, and how do we teach children to live in this multiethnic, multireligious world, which is now a reality everywhere. There is diversity in every country around the world, even in a place like Saudi Arabia, where there are a million Christians there. They’re not recognized. They don’t have a church. But how are Saudis being prepared to live the diversity in their own country between Sunni and Shia, between Muslim and non-Muslim? How are we doing that in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in our own countries, because even in the United States, we’re grappling with these questions of living with the other. I think the next frontier is going in promoting freedom of religion or belief, in equipping children and students with the tools to be productive global citizens so they can encounter the diversity in their communities in a way that’s productive and inclusive, and not one that’s a rejection, or even one that could lead to violence.

TalkAbout: Sometimes international religious freedom is criticized as a Western concept, alien for non-Western societies, or even as a form of colonialism (the idea that promoting human rights and religious freedom specifically is a way to strengthen control over non-Western countries). What do you think about this criticism?

KT: I do think that abusive governments will levy charges of colonialism or Western values being applied to non-Western society as a way to get countries who are promoting this right to kind of pause or step back, to make it uncomfortable. And I think we have to see it for what it is. That it’s just a tactic to prevent the highlighting of their abusive practices. I just don’t understand the charge that promoting freedom of religion, belief is colonialism. Promoting human rights is the antithesis of colonialism. And colonialism was about invasion, domination, pillaging countries for resources, forcing a belief system on them. Human rights and freedom of religion and belief is the complete opposite of that. It’s actually saying, everyone in your society is free, free to choose what truth to pursue, free to live out those beliefs peacefully in non-coercive ways, to have freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly; it’s a 180-degree different direction than colonialism. So, I’ve always struggled when people lay that allegation—that somehow promoting international human rights standards and freedom of religion or belief is colonialism.

Now, that being said, I do understand when there are communities that come in from the outside to share their faith. Like after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a moment where a lot of evangelical Christian missionaries came into the former Soviet Union. And the different expressions of Orthodoxy felt besieged. They thought: we’re Christians too, why are you trying to proselytize us instead of helping us re-establish ourselves when this atheistic communist regime has been removed? So, there are times when proselytization has been done improperly, or it’s been sort of a quid pro quo, or overly pressurized. But I think at the end of the day, this openness to new ideas is just the reality, is just the way the world is now. And different types of cultures are being shared in different ways. And religion is part of that. But it’s not colonialism. It’s just the 21st century that we live in now where ideas, information, different ways of living, are being experienced in new environments around the world.

Meeting with Christian leaders in Kuwait City in March 2018

TalkAbout: Do you agree that religious freedom cannot be fully protected in non-democratic and/or non-secular states?

KT: That’s a really interesting question that I have thought about. And in my work in the Middle East, when I was at the State Department, I saw this sort of this surprising dynamic of where the more democratic a country was in the Middle Eastern context, usually the weaker the protections were for religious freedom. And the more authoritarian they were, then there were stronger protections for freedom of worship and minorities. Neither was ideal. But I was comparing Kuwait, which had a parliament, had an interesting relationship between elected officials and the monarchy. There’s this desperate need for more churches for the expatriate community. The Parliament refuses to permit the building of new churches because they are a Muslim or Muslim-majority country. And the people [of Kuwait] don’t want it. Even though the monarchy is for it. They’re hamstrung by their democratically elected leadership. Now, look at the United Arab Emirates, which is a monarchy that doesn’t have the democratic component in the same way that Kuwait does. They’re building a church, a synagogue, and a mosque, next to each other in the capital of Abu Dhabi. And that’s a wonderful example of interfaith understanding and coexistence.

Church of St. Philip the Apostle in Sharjah, UAE

Think also about India, the world’s largest democracy. But the [ruling] Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Modi were elected on a platform of hate towards religious minorities. And when we would engage the Indian government on, “Please stop the lynching of Muslims; please allow churches to open,” we would just get the stiff arm because that government was elected by people who are supporting a very different view of what India should look like. So that’s going to be an issue that we’ll have to continue to engage with, all of us who work in the space of freedom of religion or belief on how to navigate promoting religious freedom in both an authoritarian or democratic context because both have their challenges but in distinct and different ways.

TalkAbout: Another type of critique is an argument that international religious freedom is a political tool in the hands of the U.S. Government. For example, in an article published after the Biden/Putin summit, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov criticizes the U.S. government and specifically accuses it of attempts to split the Orthodox World (the conflict between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over Ukraine is meant here). Also, the State Department does not always follow the USCIRF’s CPC and SWL recommendations because of political or diplomatic reasons. Do you feel that religious freedom programs and initiatives are sometimes too much entangled with geopolitical issues instead of being a purely human rights issue?

KT: There’s always going to be a tension between competing priorities, especially for a country as large as ours, as the United States. While we have this unique commitment to promoting human rights, religious freedom, other rights as part of our diplomacy, we also are engaged in economic and trade issues, security issues, military issues, and a whole host of other types of challenges. So, yes, there will at times be a break between American values and American practices because international relations is a very difficult space to operate in. Russia and China don’t burden themselves with having concerns about human rights. We do in a certain sense that hampers our diplomacy, limits our freedom of movement. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

In my work in the Middle East, when I was at the State Department, I saw this sort of this surprising dynamic of where the more democratic a country was in the Middle Eastern context, usually the weaker the protections were for religious freedom.

As an American, I want our country to be promoting these concepts of freedom and liberty and the rights of the individual. In part, because it’s who we are as a country, but also because it actually makes a better world. Countries that respect the human rights of their citizens are going to be better trade partners, they’re going to honor their contracts, they are going to be better. We’ll have common values. I think that’s why the transatlantic relationship is so important, and so vital, because in Europe and North America, the U.S. and Canada, we do have this common lineage, a common concept of liberty at a time when we see China exporting a very different view of what government and citizenry relationship should be, and Russia being Russia. So, it’s hard there. There are charges of hypocrisy that sometimes are true. But at the same time, the United States has an unparalleled commitment to promoting human rights that is really second to no other country in the world.

TalkAbout: You served across two administrations as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State. What are the differences in approaches on international religious freedom employed by Obama’s and Trump’s administrations?

KT: I would say, at one level, the promotion of religious freedom has been a consistent topic across all administrations, Republican or Democratic. Partially because it’s mandated in law, but also because it’s an American value, and it’s just part of our diplomatic engagement. Now, the Trump administration made it a priority in a way that no other administration had before—Republican or Democratic—by convening the two ministerial meetings in Washington and creating the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. They really elevated the issue globally in a way that had never been done before. At the same time, there were these other policies I found very troubling like the Muslim ban and basically ending our refugee resettlement program. That somewhat limited the long-term impact of those efforts, I thought. We’ll see how the Biden administration picks up this issue. Secretary Blinken released the International Religious Freedom Report. He gave a very strong speech, criticized our partner, Saudi Arabia, for being the only country in the world without a church, and talked about challenges in a country like Nigeria. But he also explained how, in his view, religious freedom should be viewed as part of a broader human rights engagement and not singled out. That is a break from how the Trump administration focused on the issue.

One of the things I’ve observed over the years is how members of the LGBT community, converts, and atheists, in many contexts around the world, suffer from the same type of government persecution and societal persecution. They all have to hide…. But there are very few, if any, points of connection between those three groups or their advocates.

TalkAbout: In June President Biden appointed the Special Envoy to Advance the Human Rights of LGBTQI+ Persons. In your view, will the U.S. efforts to promote international religious freedom and human rights for LGBTQI+ people be consistent and advance both groups of rights in a non-competitive manner?

KT: I hope so. One of the things I’ve observed over the years is how members of the LGBT community, converts, and atheists, in many contexts around the world, suffer from the same type of government persecution and societal persecution. They all have to hide. It’s all very dangerous for them to talk about this part of who they are out of fear they will go to jail or will be murdered, or will be kicked out of their home. So this community of vulnerability exists. But there are very few, if any, points of connection between those three groups or their advocates. I’m actually working on some research looking at the commonality of challenges between LGBT-community, converts, and the ethical-humanist community because countries that persecute converts usually persecute members of LGBT-community. Countries that criminalize atheism usually criminalize conversion. And certainly, gay marriage would not be permitted. So if we’re going to see success, I think it’s trying to bring all three of these together, because then we would be marshaling an unprecedented alliance of advocates from across the political spectrum, from across the religious spectrum that hopefully can start to bring about results in a way that we haven’t seen to date.

TalkAbout: How will the situation with international religious freedom evolve in the short- and middle-term perspectives? In your view, is it like “winter is coming,” or will the situation get better?

KT: I think we’re at that sort of hinge point in history, where it could go either way. Because of this new reality of people and different communities coming together like never before in human history, we’re at a moment where we can either as a world community figure out how to live together with people who think and believe and look different than ourselves. Or we can fail in that, and then be grappling with human rights violations and instability for decades to come. This is where it’s incumbent on elected officials, government leaders, faith leaders, laity, and churches and mosques and synagogues and temples, and people who have no faith, to be leaders in their own community, to try to build bridges between people to reach out to the other, whatever that means in their context, to stand up for their neighbors when they’re experiencing human rights violations, to not just be focused on our own, but to be focused on our neighbors. If we can take that approach, if we can think about our neighbors and what they’re experiencing and be advocates for their rights as much as we would for our own community, then that’s hopeful, then that means I think we will get to a place where humanity has maybe never been before. But that’s going to be hard, that goes against the lessons of history, that goes against thousands of years of lived experience of humanity, where people are often afraid of the other. So this is the moment where we have to decide which way are we going to go. I’m hoping it’s one where it’s based on inclusivity and human rights. But we all must do everything we can to bring that day about.