This summer I participated in the US State Departments Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on behalf of the American Humanist Association. The event, held July 16-18 in Washington, DC, was led by Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and brought together foreign delegations, State Department actors, and civil society groups to focus on stopping religious persecution around the globe. Speeches from political heavy hitters, like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and panel discussions on foreign aid and teaching tolerance packed the schedule.
The three-day event was punctuated by presentations from survivors of religious persecution. At first, watching these presentations felt voyeuristic. What good could possibly come from someone being asked to lean into a microphone and share their deepest trauma with a thousand strangers? It felt like a parade of victimization, especially since there was little people in the room could do to provide relief other than continuing to apply pressure on the perpetrating states.
However, the courage demonstrated by each speaker, one after the other, was beyond heroic. It was contagious. People like Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad, humanist activist Bonya Ahmed, and Tibetan Buddhist Nyima Lhamo drew more courage into the room than I thought people had the capacity for. They and others brought that same courage to a decidedly awkward meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office on July 17.
But their courage also gave me pause. We should neither demand nor expect individuals to carry these torches for us--they are too heavy and burn too hot. Instead, civil societies and governments must take responsibility. Where is their courage? It isn't absent for want of warning. These stories tell us that genocide is more predictable than one might think. Organizations have built early warning systems that keep close tabs on risk factors, yet we either don't have the tools or the will to intervene before blood is spilt. Moreover, we must have the courage to apply that same scrutiny to our own climate. Government officials who pointed to Uighurs detained in China who "couldn't even lay down" because the "camps were so crowded" didn't direct that same disdain to practices on our own soil.
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