October 27 marks the 19th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act. The U.S. Congress enacted the law in 1998 to “condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom.
The law created the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department. The office monitors persecution and discrimination worldwide and develops programs to promote religious freedom.
Congress updated the law in 2016. The language of the original law was revised to include not just countries, but “nonstate actors” who engage in religious persecution. This includes ISIS, which has been responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, and Boko Haram, which has targeted both Christians and Muslims in its violent attacks. The change enables the president to take action against the groups that pose a threat to religious freedom.
President Trump has nominated Samuel Brownback, a former governor of Kansas and member of Congress, to be the new ambassador in charge of the Office of International Religious Freedom. In Brownback’s years in the Senate, he worked on religious freedom issues worldwide and was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act.
“Where religious freedom is not protected, we know that instability, human rights abuses and violent extremism have a greater opportunity to take root,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this year, in remarks at the release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Annual Report. “The State Department will continue to advocate on behalf of those seeking to live their lives according to their faith.”