Rep. Gus Bilirakis, Florida Republican, told the group, “Religious persecution has personally touched me. My godmother was forced out of Turkey because of religious her beliefs. That is one of the reasons I got into public service and into the International Religious Freedom Caucus of Congress.” Bilirakis commended the Times for its coverage of religious groups under repression.
Also sponsored by the Washington Times Foundation, the Universal Peace Federation, and the American Clergy Leadership Conference, the conference brought disparate groups together under its common theme of bringing an end to religious repression and persecution. Tina Ramirez, director of government religions of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, headed a panel that featured reports from Hindus, Greek Orthodox Christians, Uyghur Muslims and Protestants from China, Sikhs and Muslims in the US, Christians from Egypt and Pakistan, Scientologists, Bahai’s and Ahmidyya Muslims. “The problem is that no faith community is safe,” said Ms. Ramirez. “You might be the persecutor in one but the persecuted in another. So, unfortunately, religious persecution knows no bounds.”
Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, the newly confirmed US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, told the gathering: “I look forward to partnering with you. I want to hear from each of you, and you can be sure that I am an ambassador that you can reach.” Ambassador Cook, who traveled later that day to Turkey on a fact-finding and diplomatic mission, declared that “Everyone should have the right to believe or not believe. That is their God-given right.”
ICRF President Dan Fefferman headed a panel of non-government organization leaders including Barrett Duke of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Lisa Sferrazza of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Rev. Skip L’Heureux of the National Council of Churches’ Religious Liberty Committee and Joseph Grieboski of the Institute for Religion and Public Policy.
Several speakers urged the strengthening of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act in a bill proposed to Congress by Rep. Frank R. Wolf that would give more power to the State Department to advocate for religious freedom abroad. The bill, HR 1856, also reauthorizes the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose mandate expires soon.
The plight of persecuted Unificationists in Japan who have been abducted and subjected to forced conversion was reported by Rev. In Jin Moon, president of the Unification Church USA, who gave the keynote address at lunch. “In Japan 4,300 of our [Unificationist] brothers and sisters have been incarcerated and have suffered mental, emotional, physical and many times sexual abuse,” she reported. Ms. Moon, who is the daughter of church founder Rev. Sun Myung Moon and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, recounted her own painful high-school years when she was ridiculed daily as a “Moonie” and a “brainwashed zombie,” by students who blew wads of paper at her and her brothers and sisters.
“I saw firsthand how cruel and unjust religious persecution can be,” she continued. “There were numerous occasions where I was belittled at school. I was something ugly, something sub-human. Yet I remember my father saying to me: ‘Hold your head high, know that you are a daughter of God.’”
“We can truly inherit the understanding that we are God's,” she said. “We need to encourage, empower and support each other in our efforts.”
Concluding the event was an afternoon session in which media experts briefed participants in effective communication tools. Moderated by Washington Times president Tom McDevitt, the panel included Times editorial page editor Brett Decker, columnist and media analyst Jennifer Harper and marketing expert Carter Clews.