Cardinal Dolan emphasizes hope amid global religious persecution

Cardinal Dolan Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

There is reason for hope for global religious freedom, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told an international gathering of religious and civic leaders in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

“I’m hardly alone when I get frustrated by unremitting assaults on our first freedom here at home, by groups and a government that ought to know better, and to a worse degree all over the planet,” Cardinal Dolan said in his keynote address to the closing dinner of the International Religious Freedom Summit on July 15. 

He added that he draws hope from “prayer, attention to God’s Word, and the solidarity I unfailingly get from gatherings like this.” 

“That religion can inspire, encourage, and foster hope in a world often thought desperate is a cause of optimism for us,” said Dolan. “As it keeps religion, and the insurance of its liberty, at the top of our agenda.”

The 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit was a gathering of religious and civil leaders from around the world to address religious persecution. Former U.S. religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback co-chaired the summit, along with Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Also on Thursday evening, EWTN News Nightly anchor Tracy Sabol moderated a panel discussion on religious freedom, featuring Meriam Ibrahim, a Catholic woman who escaped a death sentence in Sudan, along with Holocaust survivor Irene Weiss. Chinese human rights activist Grace Gao and Ensaf Haider, president of the Raif Badawi Foundation for Freedom, also participated in the panel discussion.

Cardinal Dolan, addressing the topic of U.S. leadership on international religious freedom, delivered several points for why summit attendees should be hopeful.

First, freedom of religion is now viewed as a human rights concern rather than just a “creedal” issue, he said.

“This insistence that the defense of religious freedom, the call that got us here, is a human rights issue, not a creedal one, is very essential, since our enemies - and their name is legion,  - dismiss us as self-protecting, self-serving fanatics who simply want to protect our narrow privileges and rights while suffocating enlightened progress,” said Dolan. 

“It’s also essential because of the shrinking of the clout of religion in the public square,” he added. 

Cardinal Dolan noted that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI praised religious freedom at the United Nations, saying that “If religious freedom erodes, gone is the guarantee of all our other liberties.”

The U.S. government has begun to realize the importance of religious freedom, even though “there is a long way to go” on this matter, Cardinal Dolan said, listing another reason for hope. 

He said that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “shared with me that, as director of the CIA, and then as Secretary of State, he was astounded by the illiteracy about the role of religion in world affairs among our intelligence and foreign service community.”

“It’s almost as if they were allergic to acknowledging the impact of faith and religion on the peoples of the world,” said Dolan, recalling what Pompeo told him. 

Dolan said that he experienced this on a visit to Lebanon and Syria. When he asked a U.S. embassy official if he had interacted with the ancient Christian communities of the area, the official replied that it was “none of our business” to meet with these communities.

He noted that recent secretaries of state John Kerry and Madeleine Albright had credited the work of religious leaders towards achieving world peace. He cited “areas such as Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, South Sudan and Afghanistan, where recent progress could never have been gained without the direct involvement of religious leaders.”

“So maybe we’re finally learning,” said Dolan. 

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Cardinal Dolan also shared the story of Cardinal Pio Laghi, special papal envoy to the United States, who met with President George W. Bush in March 2003 and urged the president to not invade Iraq.

After Laghi “left the oval office after what we now know was a futile attempt to change the president’s mind, the reporters asked him, ‘Have you given up hope?,’” said Dolan. The cardinal replied “‘I’m in the business of hope.  We will not give up.’”

Dolan said it is “rare” that churches, synagogues, and mosques in the United States do not intervene to protect each others’ religious freedom. 

This “gives me hope,” he said.  “And, my cherished colleagues, you and I need hope.”

The International Religious Freedom Summit on Thursday awarded several figures for their work in advancing religious liberty.

Kathy Ireland, a former model turned entrepreneur and philanthropist, received the first-ever Business International Religious Freedom Champion Award.

The IRF Champion Award for a Youth Leader Award was given to Wai Wai Nu, a Burmese former political prisoner who was arrested at the age of 18. After her release in 2012, she founded two NGOs to promote peace in Myanmar and to give legal aid to women.

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The chief executive and cofounder of Hong Kong Watch, Benedict Rogers, received the IRF Champion Award for Effective Advocacy. He addressed the dinner via Skype from his home in London. 

Sam Brownback, co-chair of the IRF Summit, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. Brownback quipped that while “this may be a lifetime achievement award,” that his life was not over and neither was his advocacy work. 

“I'm not going to stop fighting for international religious freedom and neither are you," said Brownback.

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