Perspective: Young people rally for freedom of religion all around the world

Alex Cochran, Deseret News
Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Khalida Nawaf Ilyas spoke in a soft voice during the opening session of the Global Youth Summit for Freedom of Religion or Belief on Oct. 19-20 online via Zoom. She described terrifying memories from 10 years ago, when she was 20, and her Yazidi community in the Sinjar area of northern Iraq was attacked by ISIS.

“I remember the voices of the children and mothers when they were crying. I remember the voices of my people when they were asking for help.”

“Like a nightmare” that came true, this experience led to the death of thousands of men in her minority religious community, and at least 6,800 women captured by ISIS — many still unaccounted for. As of today, hundreds of thousands of refugee Yazidis are still forcibly displaced and living in tents away from their homeland — “waiting for our brothers and sisters to be rescued.”

One man who describes himself as Sufi lives not far away from the site of that tragedy in northern Iraq. He explained at the same event what drives his desire to promote peace and justice in the area: “I believe we are all made in the image of God.”

These were two of the opening remarks kicking off this global summit on Oct. 19, with 530 people joining online from 77 different countries — representing dozens of different religions, as well as participants from nonreligious, humanist communities.

This inaugural summit was organized jointly by the First Freedom Foundation, the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, or IRFBA, and Boat People SOS.

The event’s planning committee was led by a Latter-day Saint woman, Patrice Pederson, president of the First Freedom Foundation, who was joined by a number of others, including Fiona Bruce, chair of IRFBA and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief in the U.K.

“Some of these people attending here today look like your persecutors,” Pederson then said to the entire assembled group, “while some of you look like someone else’s persecutor.”

But we are here to “model the kind of world we want to live in” — one in which there is “freedom of religion or belief for all” and in which we “treat each other with respect” that acknowledges, “as some of us might say, the ‘divinity within us.’”

Compared with a more traditional speaker-centered convening, this 25-hour event leveraged Open Space Technology, which allows participants to shape the conference agenda, by creating discussion topics and then self-selecting into different conversations.

Sessions included discussions on stopping genocide, how to help FoRB refugees (an acronym for Freedom of Religion and Belief), and how to protect FoRB leaders as human rights defenders. There were explorations of unique challenges and opportunities for FoRB in India and South Asia, the Pacific Region, Nigeria, West Balkans and Latin America.

Other discussions focused on how to raise awareness at the grassroots, and through mass media, with training available for how to work with journalists to report violations against FoRB.

One unique session explored how to improve relationships between people of faith and atheists — with another focused on reconciling FoRB and seemingly “intractable identity conflicts.”

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, who is communications director for Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and author of “Just Faith: Reclaiming Progressive Christianity,” led a session on how LGBTQ+ rights and religious freedom are not necessarily incompatible.

The diversity of attendees was striking. One participant from Mexico was a Buddhist monk whose husband is Muslim, her mother Latter-day Saint, father Catholic, and her husband’s family evangelical.

Latter-day Saints participants include a returned missionary from Cambodia, an intern for the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief in the U.K. parliament, a young adult from Brazil who currently lives in Idaho, and a Peruvian living in Canada.

Five hundred-thirty people from 77 different countries attended the 2023 Global Youth Summit for Freedom of Religion or Belief online. | Global Youth Summit
Five hundred-thirty people from 77 different countries attended the 2023 Global Youth Summit for Freedom of Religion or Belief online. | Global Youth Summit

There were also close to two dozen Latter-day Saint mentors signed up to help, with members of the Church of Jesus Christ supporting from six different continents — including Cole Durham, the founder of BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies, who logged in from Berlin at 12:30 a.m. his time.

“If we really want to achieve freedom of religion or belief in the world, we have to turn this movement into a mass movement,” said Merv Thomas, founder and president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and chair of the U.K. FoRB Forum. “And to turn it into a mass movement, we need young people.”

This was a focus of the gathering, with organizers receiving hundreds of emails from young people around the world expressing appreciation for the event. Pederson spoke with emotion about “the contrast between the persecution they experience and the hope they express” in the emails.

Despite heavy recruitment, there were only a couple dozen participants from all of North and South America — reflected in the conference lull after Europe and Africa went to bed.

Even so, one participant in Jos, Nigeria, was determined to attend the full 25 hours of the event — but had his battery die around 5 a.m. his time. Before leaving, he expressed appreciation for connecting with “people out there who care about us.”

“This is a defining moment in the global challenge to promote religion and belief,” said Frank Wolf, a former congressman from Virginia and current commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Wolf was also the author of the International Religious Freedom Act, which passed exactly 25 years ago on Friday, Oct. 27, which elevated religious freedom as a higher priority in U.S. foreign policy. Many consider this act to be the beginning of the global religious freedom movement.

Wolf reminded participants of a sobering 2023 USCIRF report aggregating mounting restrictions on religious freedom across many countries in the world.

Wolf emphasized that the cries of the persecuted were too often met with deafening silence — which encourages wrongdoers to continue.

“You may choose to look the other way — but you can never say again that you do not know,” he said, quoting William Wilberforce.

But there were brighter days ahead, attendees believed — with many discussions about what more could be done. The former congressman expressed his hope that one day everyone could “live without fear” for their belief.

This was a hope uniting everyone participating in the summit, no matter what it takes to get there.

Jacob Hess is a contributing writer for the Deseret News and the former editor of Public Square Magazine. He’s the coauthor of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”