US Government turns to faith-based organizations to help deliver aid, promote religious freedom

UNDER THE HEADING “Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity: Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations,” a one-day  symposium, jointly sponsored by the Holy See’s Secretariat of State and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See was held Oct. 2, 2019 at the Vatican. Speakers included US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin., as well as the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher. Mark von Riedemann, Director of Public Affairs and Religious Freedom for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) moderated a panel on humanitarian aid. He spoke with ACN about the significance of the event.

What prompted this symposium?

The symposium marked 35 years of positive cooperation between the US government and the Holy See. It was a salute to the work of St. Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, and their combined efforts to bring about the end of Communism in the former Soviet Union.

The intent was to highlight new initiatives taken by the US government to work directly with Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) on the ground. As US Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrinch observed in her opening remarks, governments alone can only do so much. Even if the United States is one of the main providers of humanitarian aid worldwide, she noted, delivering that support efficiently requires partnerships with organizations on the ground. Catholic agencies and other FBOs can have an impact in places where governments have neither the experience nor the network to do so.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to the Vatican Calissa Gingrich; Giulio

Significantly, the representative of the European Union to the Holy See, Ambassador Jan Tombinski, announced the launch of an EU initiative called the “Global Exchange on Religion in Society,” which will be supporting projects aimed at reducing religious ignorance or “illiteracy” in the EU and worldwide. The objective is to acknowledge the importance of faith in everyday life. This is an absolute first for Europe, which to date prided itself on being “religion-blind.”

Cardinal Parolin praised the new initiatives, but he insisted that governments avoid, when sponsoring faith-based organizations, what Pope Francis has called an “ideological or cultural colonization.” This means “imposing a different worldview or set of values on poorer societies, often by making the adoption of those values a prerequisite to receiving humanitarian or development aid.” The practice of making food aid contingent upon the acceptance of programs promoting contraception and abortion is well documented.

Religious freedom issues are increasingly making headlines and prompting governments to take some form of action. Have you noticed a trend?

Increasingly, religious freedom is being recognized as a foundational right; there is growing awareness that two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries with restrictions on religious freedom—and that Christians represent the largest faith group experiencing religious persecution.

This conference follows closely on the heels of a Sept. 23, 2019 “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom,” the first-ever UN event on religious freedom hosted by a US president; July saw the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom convened by the US State Department; and in May the UN passed a resolution marking August 22 as the “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence based on Religion or Belief.” Over the last two years there has been a flurry of initiatives, including the creation of a State Secretariat for Christian Persecution in Hungary, the US-initiated International Religious Freedom Alliance and a growing number of nations instituting or reactivating Ambassadors for Religious Freedom and Belief in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, the US, Norway, Finland, Germany and the United Kingdom, among others.

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of the ACN Religious Freedom Report

The report has been prophetic. In 1999 religious freedom was not a major topic on most governments’ radars. Yet ACN, at that point was receiving many reports of Christian persecution from our project partners on the ground. Since that time, we have witnessed dramatic developments in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where untold millions have been suffering persecution because of their faith. Finally, the world has begun to pay attention and to take action.

A pivotal moment came in 2016, when the European Union and the US both passed resolutions labelling the ISIS atrocities against Christians in Syria and Iraq as genocide. Is Christian persecution a surprise? No, it has grown over the centuries from the roots of intolerance, to discrimination, to persecution—and finally the world awakens to the genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria. Symptomatic of this is the reduction of the Christian presence in the Middle East: in 1910, Christians represented 13.6 percent of the population; by 2010 that number had declined to 4.2 percent. The call from the US government for a new partnership between governments and Faith-Based Organizations to come to the aid of suffering religious minorities is a further sign of Western countries waking up to vast extent of religious persecution. It is an important step in the right direction.

—Maria Lozano