MDI at the First World Religious Freedom Ministerial

Dates: 24-26 July 2018

Country: USA, Washington DC

Religious_Ministerial_1Welcoming more than 350 guests from 80 countries, the US State Department International Religious Freedom, Ambassador Sam Brownback, set the tone of the event: “Religious Freedom is your own right to believe in whatever you want to believe in or nothing at all. That’s your own right and your Government should not interfere with it.”

The 3-day event brought together government officials, religious leaders and organisations specialised in religious freedom issues or diversity in general “to discuss challenges, identify concrete ways to combat religious persecution and discrimination, and ensure greater respect for religious freedom for all.” The Media Diversity Institute (MDI) Executive Director and a Trustee of MDI USA Milica Pesic was invited to participate as the representative of both organisations developing and implementing projects with the focus on religious intolerance in the media and in public sphere. Religiously diverse audience in Washington – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Yazidis and others – was urged by Ambassador Brownback to go beyond mere tolerance of religious differences.

“We were as inclusive as possible because we wanted to include everyone of every faith or no faith at all, everyone who cares about religious freedom and who will join us in this cause,” said Brownback.

Religious_Ministerial_2During the event, senior U.S. Government officials provided an overview of the country’s foreign policy goals in relation to international religious freedom, while philanthropic and private sector organisations shared practices for CSOs to link their efforts to improve religious freedom with private sector initiatives and resources.

Religious tolerance”, insisted John J. Sullivan, the US Deputy Secretary of State, is “a key building block of peace and security. It is the mark of responsible governance. Inter-faith understanding, respect, and the protection of religious freedom and other human rights are bulwarks against extremism.”

During  the first two days of the Conference the participants, including  survivors of religious persecution, told their stories, shared their expertise, and jointly looked for a way to greater religious freedom in their societies. They also discussed the topics such as the intersections between religious freedom and women’s rights; religious freedom and countering violent extremism; religious freedom and economic prosperity; confronting legal challenges to religious freedom; advocating for equal rights for all; preserving cultural heritage; and providing support and care to victims of religious violence or persecution.  The participants of the event ware at the end greeted by Dalai Lama who talked about the importance of inter-faith harmony.

“Nothing can better demonstrate the suffering some people go through in aim to enjoy one of the fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression than personal stories told by the victims of their own governments’ disrespect for those rights. Their stories should be a reminder and a lecture for governments’ officials, CSOs but also for journalists and the media. I am truly looking forward to the next Ministerial hoping that next time we’ll focus on the role of media in covering  the views of believers and non-believers as related to this important issue,” said Milica Pesic who represented MDI and MDI USA at the event in Washington.

Thanking the participants, Ambassador Sam Brownback invited them to join an alliance. “It is critical that the governments are joined by CSOs and religious leaders. We cannot get the job done if we don’t work with you and through you.”

The role of governments was discussed on third day by foreign ministers and other governmental and international organisation representatives.

As the conclusion of the gathering, the State Department released the Potomac Declaration reaffirming the ideals declared in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Potomac Plan of Action. The documents are meant to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to promoting and defending religious freedom. They recommend concrete ways the international community and governments can do more to protect religious freedom and vulnerable religious communities.