Experts at a recent panel talk in Washington, D.C., suggested that while religious freedom has become a respectable component of foreign policy, serious concerns remain on a global scale.

"Religion matters: for billions of people religion remains an inescapable source of identity and purpose," said Dr. Katrina Lantos-Swett, vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, at a Feb. 26 talk.

Dr. Andrew Bennett, Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, echoed Lantos-Swett's emphasis on religious liberty, stressing that it is "a foundational human right" upon which other rights are dependent.

The discussion was hosted by Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Farr began the discussion by raising the question of whether international religious freedom has become "respectable foreign policy," noting that in the past he has criticized the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations for not "taking it seriously enough."

Bennett answered that religious freedom is "highly respectable" as international policy, particularly in most Western countries. He pointed to Canada's launch of a religious freedom office at an Ahmadi Muslim Mosque – a traditionally persecuted group – as a demonstration of "how strong Canada's commitment to religious freedom is."

However, he continued, there is a "worrying inverse trend of the persecution of minority communities, particularly Christians" in the Middle East and other areas of the globe. According to Pew Research Center, 75 percent of the world's population lives in countries with high levels of hostility against religion.

Bennett urged the United States, Canada, and other strong supporters of international religious freedom to "use our collective diplomatic efforts" to advance religious liberty in places where it is threatened.

The question of religious freedom, he continued, is "a question of human rights and fundamentally human dignity," rather than simply one of theology.

"Religious freedom cannot exist on its own as a lone right: it dovetails with other rights," complementing them rather than conflicting with them, he said.

The Canadian ambassador also warned Western countries that "we risk developing a diplomatic blind spot if we don't consider religion" as part of a broader foreign policy.

He emphasized the need for an understanding of religious freedom that includes religious action at its core, lamenting that "we've done a very good job of pushing religion or any public expression of faith firmly into the private square."  
Lantos-Swett commented that while "yes, in some ways it has become respectable," there are other ways in which religious freedom is still not respected in foreign policy.

On a positive note, she observed, religious liberty "has been institutionalized through laws and offices" around the globe, and some foreign policy members are becoming convinced of its indispensability on the international stage.

However, she continued, religious freedom also faces many misconceptions in the policy sphere. Many people "somehow think it means imposing religion" or Western beliefs on other nations, while in fact, "religious freedom imposes nothing," but instead reminds government that people "have the right to think as they please" and "live out their beliefs."

People also mistakenly think that religious freedom favors one religion, she added, while in reality, religious liberty is "a broad principle" applying to all communities and beliefs.

Lantos-Swett suggested that there has been a "blind spot" on religious freedom in both Republican and Democratic administrations, leading to negative consequences when foreign countries feel free to abuse religious liberty without penalty.

Religious freedom also faces problems domestically, she noted, stressing that the "last thing we would want to do is assign religious freedom a second-class status."

The work of protecting religious freedom, Lantos-Swett said, is essential because its concerns "define who we are as a people."

"If we don't do the job, who else will?"