The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) this week acknowledged the 25th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), what the bishops called a “landmark” piece of legislation meant to protect the “essential and inviolable” principle of religious freedom.

The act, passed in 1998 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton on Oct. 27 of that year, was drafted to prioritize religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. 

The IRFA sought to “elevate religious freedom as a foreign policy goal of the United States, promote religious freedom in countries that violate this basic human right, and strengthen advocacy on behalf of individuals persecuted in other countries on the basis of religion,” the USCCB said in a press release on Wednesday.

In a joint statement, New York archbishop Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who chairs the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty, along with Rockford bishop and Committee on International Justice and Peace chairman David Malloy, noted that the Catholic Church “has long recognized the essential and inviolable nature of religious freedom.”

“In 1965, Pope St. Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which stated that this right is founded ‘in the very dignity of the human person,’ so that everyone has a right to religious freedom,” the bishops said. 

“The declaration went on to say governments must protect the rights and safeguard the religious freedom of all its citizens so that ‘no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, within due limits,’” they added. 

Dolan and Malloy said that 80% of people live in nations with high levels of religious freedom restrictions, adding that they “have been steadily increasing for several years.”

“As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act, let us join with our Holy Father in his prayer ‘that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion will everywhere be recognized and respected; these are fundamental rights, because they make us free to contemplate the heaven for which we were created,’” the statement concluded.

The law created a new position in the State Department, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, whose duties include promoting religious freedom abroad and advising the president on religious freedom matters.

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Additionally, the act mandates a State Department report each year on the global state of international religious freedom. The most recent report can be found here.

One in seven Christians across the globe face persecution and 5,621 Christians were killed for “faith-related reasons” last year, according to Open Doors, an advocacy organization for persecuted Christians.

The organization, which annually ranks the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution, said that the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world this year are North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan.