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. Knox Thames was interviewed by Dmytro Vovk.

Watch a shorter video version of this interview here.

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.

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Freedom of Religion or Belief in Russia: Restrictions and Challenges in 2020

Olga Sibireva is the head of the Religion in Secular Society project at the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis

In this blog post, I will briefly explain some recent Russian developments regarding freedom of religion or belief protections in 2020. The post is based on the April 2021 report released by the Moscow-based human rights monitor, the SOVA-Center. Generally, Russia did not make any positive progress concerning challenges to freedom of religion or belief that emerged in previous years.

Persecution of Religious Minorities

Since 2017, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been banned in Russia as an extremist organization. Leaders and members of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ communities can be fined and punished criminally for professing their religion. While in 2019 there were 18 criminal sentences of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this number increased to 25 in 2020, and 13 people were sentenced to prison time. Overall, more than 400 believers have been prosecuted. New criminal cases were initiated less than a year ago, which means that the authorities will continue to prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses. Additionally, human rights monitors regularly report cases of violence against detained believers.

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Conceptualizing Religious Persecution as a Crime against Humanity

Rohingya Muslims Flee Violence In Myanmar
Rohingya Muslims Flee Violence In Myanmar

In this series we discuss the conception “grievous religious persecution” developed by Werner Nicolaas Nel in his recently published book. Nel points out that “the international justice system has remained reluctant to enforce …criminal prosecutions [of religious persecutions], ultimately due to the definitional instability and legal vagueness of the crime of persecution, which has blunted the enforceability of criminal prosecutions, resulting in impunity. The proposed solution was to propose a legally justifiable, comprehensively formulated, and pragmatically verified conceptualization of ‘grievous religious persecution.’”

Employing a broad definition of religion and religious belief and distinguishing religious persecution as a type of persecution targeting primarily the religious identity of victims, Nel offers several materials and mental elements, as well as the required threshold of severity, as definitional components of grievous religious persecution and uses the example of Da’esh to illustrate how his conception will work in practice.

In her response, Michelle Coleman finds the conception of grievous religious persecution “an interesting addition to the landscape of international crimes,”which could be employed by national legislators and international tribunals established in the future to deal with crimes against humanity. However, due to political, jurisdictional, and organizational reasons, Coleman doubts the proposed conception will help the International Criminal Court address more cases on religious prosecution.

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