What if 21st-century civilization evolved toward cooperative engagement across our deepest differences?
What if religious intolerance gave way to mutual understanding and respect?
What if religious differences could unite more than divide us?
What if religions and governments worked together to create a better society?
Just two decades into it, there’s an unsettling sense that human progress in the 21st century may be slowed to a standstill or even moving in reverse.
A big reason for our growing apprehension is the rise of religious extremism and intolerance throughout the world. Too often it seems like the better angels of human nature may be giving up and exiting the world stage.
Overall, government restrictions on religion have been rising globally, confirms the Pew Research Center. Incredibly, roughly 80% of the world’s population now lives in countries with “high or very high” levels of restrictions on religion. Moreover, as of 2022, 57 countries now have “very high” levels of government restrictions on religion, up from 40 in 2007, the first year of this annual study.
Even within democracies, growing numbers of people are polarized in the name of religion — condemning, ostracizing, and even doing violence to those who don’t share their beliefs.
Of course, religious intolerance isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been around for centuries. But, after several decades of relative dormancy or reversals in many parts of the world, it’s again rearing its ugly head, becoming more frequent and widespread.
“Religious freedom is in a state of deepening crisis,” says Gregory Mitchell, founder, and chairperson of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat (IRF). “Traditional advocacy has been each faith or belief community advocating for its own with a focus on naming, blaming, and shaming its persecutors. It’s proven to be ineffective.”
For the past 12 years and with support from Templeton Religion Trust, IRF has been practicing a different approach: bringing people of different faiths together to work cooperatively to advance religious freedom for all.
“Once advocates embrace and embody the cooperative engagement approach and unite across their deepest differences, they are enabled to become builders of religious freedom, inclusion, and cohesion,” says Mitchell.
IFR is distinctive in both its ideology and tactics. Instead of simply discoursing about religious freedom as a lofty ideal, its focus is down-to-earth, here-and-now efforts that unite people of all faiths – as well as none – across their differences. In so doing, they create a strong and united voice for religious freedom. When that occurs at scale, says Mitchell, governments begin to listen. Ultimately, the results can be profound: stronger relationships, religious freedom, social cohesion, stability, peace, and prosperity.
IRF’s primary method has been its roundtables. These are regional forums that regularly bring people of diverse faiths and experiences together in a safe space to listen and learn from each other. The goal isn’t to convert people or change beliefs. Instead, it’s an approach known as “covenantal pluralism” – essentially, moving beyond tolerance and diversity toward genuine understanding, appreciation, and cooperative engagement.
“The whole point is to get people at the same table and offering to partner with governments to improve public policy and secure religious freedom for everyone, everywhere,” Mitchell explains. “It’s people pulling together, working together, and uniting around this common cause. It’s about standing up for and advocating for the other.”
To date, IRF roundtables now exist in more than 25 countries. In addition, in 2021 the organization hosted a first-ever event: an International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., that brought together more than 1,000 leaders from 30 diverse belief traditions who gathered with government leaders from throughout the world.
Now, IRF is building on its efforts of the past decade by institutionalizing a new program. Both a bottom-up and top-down effort, it’s centered on strengthening cooperative engagement at the local level while providing strategic planning, alignment, and coordination at the global level. Activities are organized into three categories:
Resources for this new program are centered on Central America, Central Asia, and Central Africa plus a key initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. These areas have been prioritized due to recent efforts to strengthen peace, including religious freedom for religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries as well as for Muslims in countries where they’re minorities.
Mitchell is convinced that the need for new approaches and methods is dire. “There has never been more advocacy and government actions to advance religious freedom. Yet persecution has never been worse,” he points out. “We believe the path to religious freedom is not measured in words, events, or single moments. Instead, our action-oriented and results-driven approach educates, equips, and empowers leaders, communities, and individuals to pull together and do the real work of building religious freedom from the ground up. We are in this to achieve long-term impact, and we know that happens only through sustained efforts and sustained results.”
Fundamentally, religion is lived in everyday life – how people think and behave in the public square away from the self-reinforcement of their churches, synagogues, mosques, or other gatherings of the like-minded. By building greater understanding and respect across differences, IRF hopes to change the conversation about religion — “from a negative narrative of division to a positive one of people of all faiths and beliefs coming together to share their stories. To listen to each other carefully and respectfully instead of arguing. Uniting into coalitions and taking multifaith actions to advocate for each other and build religious freedom for all,” Mitchell says.
It’s a vision for our century that’s becoming more imperative every day.