International Religious Freedom Summit 2024

Religious Freedom Requires Constant Protection, Speakers State at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2024

If a nation disrespects religious freedom, all other rights surely will be limited, oppressed, or violated.”

The 2024 International Religious Freedom Summit (IRF Summit) Convened in Washington, D.C. (Washington Hilton Hotel, January 30-31). The event  featured 169 speakers. A total of 90 organizations from 30 unique faith traditions were partners in the event. They presented to over 1,500 attendees from at least 41 countries. 

Now in its fourth year, the summit draws hundreds of advocates for religious liberty, scholars, and numerous victims of religious persecution to Washington for days of advocacy and education.

The sessions addressed crises from Nigeria to Nicaragua. Alarming attacks on religious freedom can be observed around the world.

In its 2024 World Watch List, Open Doors reported that over 365 million Christians live in countries experiencing high levels of persecution or discrimination. The organization found that all 50 nations scored high enough to register “very high” persecution levels, according to Open Doors’ metrics.

Sobering examples of the persecution of religious minorities worldwide. Religiously motivated genocides have been recognized by the United States in China against Uyghur Muslims and in Burma against Rohingya Muslims.

Women are the most frequent victims of religious persecution 

“It’s a troubling and complicated world for women when it comes to freedom of religion or belief,” said Frederick A. Davie of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “But I think the evidence is pretty clear; where women and girls have their human rights acknowledged and supported, not only do they flourish, but the societies in which they live flourish as well.”

Rushan Abbas, Uighur American Advocate and Activist (Photo: Peter. Zoehrer, FOREF Europe)

The stories persist: Christian girls kidnapped by Islamist terrorists such as Boko Haram in Nigeria; accusations of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad by Christian women in Pakistan resulting in beatings, jailings, or killings; violence against and the kidnapping of Jewish women in southern Israel during the Hamas attack on Oct. 7; and sterilizations and forced abortions of Uyghur Muslim women in China, targeted for their faith.

More than 70 speakers discussed the worsening situation of religious freedom in Nigeria, India, Ukraine, the Middle East, Latin America, and elsewhere.

They also discussed how military conflicts have propelled religious repression, from Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Breakout sessions examined the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East, the use of technology by repressive regimes, such as the high-tech surveillance in China, and the Israel-Hamas war, with one private session showing raw footage from the October 7 terrorist attack. The documentary was almost too much to bear, causing some participants to leave the room halfway through the program.

Religious Liberty – A Bipartisan Concern

“This should not be a partisan issue,” House Speaker  Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said of China’s brutalization of Uyghur Muslims, who have suffered torture, re-education, forced labor, and imprisonment in internment camps. He also decried reports of organ harvesting from Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (Photo credit: Peter Zoehrer, FOREF Europe)

“This is truly one of the most diverse and important meetings that happen in Washington, and I mean that sincerely,” Johnson said.

The U.S. founders enshrined religious liberty as “our first freedom” in the Bill of Rights, he said.

“These ideas come from the self-evident truth that men and women are created by God and that it is God, not the government, who gives us our rights,” he said.

Johnson also called out several totalitarian regimes, including China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and North Korea, for egregious religious freedom violations, urging the State Department to take a tougher stance.

Katrina Lantos Swett, co-chair of the summit, condemned the Hamas terrorist attacks, describing the aftermath as a “battle for civilization.” Lantos Swett is the daughter of the late Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress and a long-standing champion of human rights. She currently serves as the president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.

Mike Pence called on the United States to exert economic pressure on China in response to the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang region, recognized by the US.

Pence criticized Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on Catholic priests and suggested that the US should respond by modifying a US trade agreement that benefits Nicaragua.

“I believe the time has come for the United States to make it clear to Nicaragua that we will not tolerate any action against, or suppression of, church leaders and religious leaders in Nicaragua without consequences,” he declared.

Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who was sentenced in February 2023 to 26 years in prison for refusing to cease his outspoken criticism of the repressive government, was exiled and deported in early January. Alongside him, eighteen other Catholic clergymen were also deported.

The persecution of Christians escalates in Nigeria

Open Doors concurred that the deadliest country for Christians over the past year was Nigeria. The organization ranks Nigeria No. 6 on its annual World Watch List of countries where being a Christian is most difficult. In 2022, it reported that 5,014 Nigerian believers were killed due to their faith.

Sam Brownback, a former senator and governor of Kansas who served as the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom in the Trump administration, co-chaired the summit. He stated that embracing religious liberty could “help us reduce, if not eliminate, genocides because 9 out of 10 genocides are perpetrated against a religious minority. … This movement for religious freedom is so central to a number of deep concerns in the world today and to foreign policy problems,”

Japan at the crossroads – Religious Liberty under attack

The UPF and Washington Times Foundation luncheon further emphasized the unjust actions of the Japanese government to dissolve and confiscate assets from the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Japan.

The dissolution case is presently being adjudicated by a judge in the Tokyo District Court. The pretext for targeting the Family Federation in Japan was the July 2022 assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; the assassin allegedly expressed “hate” and a “grudge” towards the church, citing significant donations made by his mother, a member, some 20 years prior.

“If the Family Federation is dissolved, it will not only lose its tax exemption, but it will also lose its places of worship, assets, everything. It would be a death sentence,” Dr. Massimo Introvigne, Editor in Chief of Bitter Winter, told the UPF and Times Foundation panel discussion.

“It is not acceptable to engage in collective punishment” or to use the power of the government and media to marginalize a faith community and render it “an easy target for state abuse,” Dr. Lantos Swett stated during a panel discussion led by Washington Times Opinion Editor Charles Hurt.

See Also

Concerning the resolve by the Japanese government to dissolve the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (and its sister organizations) there, Dr Swett said that “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”  “Right now, Japan is in the process of getting into the car drunk when it comes to their treatment of the community we are here to recognize and honor today”, she continued.

“Japan is at a crossroads,” declared Dr. Jan Figel, a celebrated advocate for religious freedom and member of the IRF Summit Global Leadership Council. “Religious freedom acts as a litmus test for all human rights,” he remarked, reflecting on how he spent half of his life under the anti-religious communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia. He emphasized that if religious freedom is disregarded in a nation, “then all other rights will surely be limited, oppressed, or violated.”

Religious freedom serves communities as well as individuals, said Prof. Cole Durham Jr., director of the Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religious Studies.

So, if there is wrongful conduct by an individual believer (or a believer’s relative), that individual should be sanctioned, “but the entire religious community should not be shut down or crippled,” he said.

Call for Action

The Charter for Religious Freedom, drafted at the 2021 IRF Summit, established itself as a cornerstone document in this field. Published in ten languages, it provides the most comprehensive guidelines on religious freedom to date.

The impactful 600-word text concludes with a compelling call to action.

It urges all stakeholders, including leaders of international organizations, nations, religious communities, civil society institutions, media outlets, and policymakers, to translate these principles into concrete steps towards achieving universal religious freedom.

Peter Zoehrer, Executive Director – FOREF Europe contributed to this report.


Press  Coverage of the IRF Summit 24 – Find numerous articles and a photo gallery on the official IRF Website




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