The Religious Freedom Annual Review, sponsored by the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU Law School, and co-sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, was held virtually on June 15-16, 2021. The 2021 theme, “Religion’s Role in Overcoming Divides and Strengthening American Democracy,” was reiterated by the three keynote speakers, Peter Wehner, Elder Dale G. Renlund, and Sister Ruth Lybbert Renlund. The opening session concluded with remarks by Asma Uddin, L. Whitney Clayton, and Brett Scharffs on religious identity and dignity in America.
Peter Wehner, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, stated that Christians ought to see others as equal. “Don’t withdraw from politics.” Christians should use Christianity to help define a “moral excellence…We’re called upon to be faithful—not successful,” and that Christians should “argue for truth, not for victory.”
Dmytro Vovkis Director of the Centre for the Rule of Law and Religion Studies, Yaroslav Mudryi National Law University in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and co-editor of Talk About: Law and Religion
In June 2021 the ICLRS Blog, “Talk About: Law and Religion,” hosted a webinar on advancing religious freedom in different political regimes. The panelists (Brett G. Scharffs, Seng Mai Aung, Ján Figeľ, Mine Yildirim, Knox Thames, and Elizabeth A. Clark) talked about their personal experiences in Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan focusing on challenges and restrictions religious and belief communities face in these countries and other parts of the world. They shared their thoughts on human rights compliance, the basics of religious freedom advocacy and internationals’ interacting with local authorities and religious communities, discussed what worked and did not work in promoting religious freedom globally and why efforts to promote religious freedom was sometimes a matter of both international and domestic politics.
Brett G. Scharffsis the Rex E. Lee Chair, Professor of Law, and the Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University
Seng Mai Aung is a Program Officer for Myanmar at the Institute for Global Engagement
Myanmar is, and for several years has been, included on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom Annual Report’s “blacklist” as a Country of Particular Concern. In 2012, an incident in Rakhine State occurred between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, escalating into nationwide religious conflicts between different faith groups. Then came the rise of the Buddhist Nationalist Group, Ma Ba Tha also known as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion. This Ma-Ba Tha movement promoted fear of being invaded by foreign religions and influence along with damaging relations between other religious groups. Social media played an important role in spreading false news and hate speech and further dividing people of different faiths.
A reconciling peacebuilding effort was introduced—the religion and rule of law training program—to assist Myanmar in promoting religious freedom. In 2015, the Institute for Global Engagement in partnership with the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of Brigham Young University Law School were invited to give the religion and rule of law training in Yangon by local religious leaders providing them with resources, tools, and lessons learned from similar international cases.
Identifying Local Stakeholders
For the successful implementation of the religion and rule of law training programs in specific regions, identifying key stakeholders was the first pressing matter. Due to the sensitivity of the topic and how the subjects of “religion” or “rule of law” are perceived, it was vital to identify key stakeholders who understood the risks and benefits of such programs, recognized the importance of the topics, and were willing to get involved in the process of implementing the program in their city. To identify the stakeholders, it was important to talk to people who knew the area before approaching any stakeholders. It was also essential to approach them humbly and respectfully that included a willingness to listen to their challenges and needs.