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A Yazidi refugee camp in Duhok Governorate, Kurdistan, Iraq (Noe Falk Nielsen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


Power of the purse

Will the U.S. use its economic weight to force respect for religious freedom?

When Yazidi advocate Pari Ibrahim goes back to the Yazidi refugee camps in the Kurdistan region in Iraq, the people always ask, “What did the U.S. say? What will happen now?” Four years ago ISIS radicals began a genocidal campaign against the Yazidis, killing or kidnapping almost 10,000 people; now survivors languish in refugee camps on Kurdistan’s Mount Sinjar and in Syria and Turkey.

At a Nov. 9 event in Washington hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute and Baylor University, Ibrahim said her people desperately look to the American government for help: “If the U.S. says something, then the whole world will listen.”

On the 20th anniversary of the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, advocates say the IRF Act offers persecuted religious groups their best chance for relief, even as conditions continue to worsen around the world. By some estimates, more than 80 percent of the world lives in a religiously restrictive environment.

“When you look at countries from which some of our gravest threats, terrorism, instability, violence emerge ... these are overwhelmingly countries where religious freedom is badly abused and oppressed,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

The offices the IRF Act created, including USCIRF and the ambassador-at-large position, monitor religious freedom conditions, release an annual report, and make recommendations for the United States to sanction offending countries.

Knox Thames, special adviser for religious minorities at the State Department, said an often overlooked aspect of USCIRF’s annual report is that it trained a generation of foreign service officers in religious issues. “There, we are ahead of the curve from just about every other country,” Thames said.

In countering new and old challenges, a growing number of religious freedom advocates argue that neglecting religious freedom in the interest of national security actually harms both in the long run. Since 2004, the United States has given Saudi Arabia a waiver on USCIRF-recommended sanctions, citing national security. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia continues to earn its status on USCIRF’s annual report as a “country of particular concern,” most recently by the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Trump administration took a different tack with Turkey, squeezing its economy to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson, WORLD’s Daniel of the Year.

At the 20th anniversary event, Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback at one point asked how many knew someone who was in jail because of their faith. Hands shot up around the room—the majority of them concentrated in just a couple of rows.

When they later opened a mic for questions, one man, a Uighur Muslim named Ferkat Jawdat, said he came with a group of Uigher Muslims. All had family members in re-education camps. China has detained over 1 million Uighur Muslims in camps for what officials call counterterrorism measures.

After the event, Jawdat showed me a picture of his mother, whom officials detained in February. He has not spoken with her since. Jawdat said he has been seeking help from State Department officials, lawmakers, and anyone else who will listen.

He believes other countries are hesitant to act, intimidated by China’s economic power.

“The U.S. has the same gun in their hands—economic power,” he said. “They are just softly speaking to the Chinese government officials. They should directly use it for human rights violations. They should have used it a while ago.”

In describing the Yazidi genocide, panelist Ibrahim said, “This will happen again tomorrow if the root causes are not tackled.”

Jawdat and his aunt, who held a yellow plastic binder filled with pictures of their missing family members, have only too much reason to fear it is happening again today.

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Capitol Police arrest protesters outside the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)


Recipe for a protest

Organized protests are nothing new or sinister, but ramping up the anger can backfire

WASHINGTONWaiting in line on Capitol Hill to get into the Senate hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Peggy Nienaber of the ministry Faith & Action saw organizers prepping protesters. Organizers had them sign civil disobedience forms if they planned to get arrested, held their belongings for them—which police would otherwise confiscate after an arrest—provided them meals, and handed them $50 in envelopes for bail.

One woman in line asked Nienaber if she planned to sign the forms. When she declined, the woman asked what Nienaber would be doing to get arrested. “Actually, I will not be doing anything to get arrested,” Nienaber said. “I’ll be praying very quietly.”

Accusations that activists were paying protesters stole much media attention during the ultimately successful nomination of Kavanaugh, but organizers working around the clock—and protesters straddling the line of organizers—were more there to enable the action than to pay for it.

Both sides of the political aisle have such organizers, and the anti-Kavanaugh protests offer lessons in the benefits—and potential drawbacks—to organized protesting.

Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, UltraViolet, the Center for Popular Democracy, and others sent representatives to the Kavanaugh hearings. These organizers outfitted protesters with logo-plastered T-shirts, held training sessions on what protesters should expect if arrested, practiced chants, coached protesters on how to “bird-dog” lawmakers, and emailed them talking points for when they netted one.

Alethea Torrelles Shapiro, a protester from Long Island and mother of four, became a sort of ad hoc organizer. When the Kavanaugh confirmation came up, she thought, “I have to go. I have to be a part of history.” Once the Senate set the Sept. 27 date to hear from professor Christine Blasey Ford, she booked a flight to Washington, D.C. Her 10-year-old daughter pleaded, “Mom, please do not get arrested. I will not be able to walk into my lunchroom.”

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Comstock heads to a closed-door strategy session at the U.S. Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)


The purple line

Can GOP House incumbent Barbara Comstock overcome demographic destiny?

Barbara Comstock, the GOP incumbent in Virginia’s District 10, is supposedly as vulnerable as a hot dog dangling from the hand of a 4-year-old surrounded by dachshunds.

The district stretches 70 miles from the deep blue suburbs near Washington west to the bright red apple orchards of Frederick County—and Democrats want to make it one of the 24 seats needed to win back the U.S. House. The question is whether Comstock can, like her predecessor Frank Wolf, tiptoe the line between the GOP’s conservative base and the district’s increasingly liberal-leaning voters, a task even more difficult than usual in the Donald Trump era.

Republican Wolf won the 10th in a 1980 upset and kept it for 34 years through hard work and savvy political positioning. He showed up to chicken dinner fundraisers, looked after his constituents, and focused on issues that endeared him to conservatives but seldom antagonized moderates or Democrats. When he retired in 2014, WORLD named him Daniel of the Year for his efforts promoting international religious freedom.

Then Comstock took over. Her margins of victory shrank from 16 points in 2014 to six in 2016, but that was an impressive win given that the district went for Hillary Clinton by 10. In Virginia’s 2017 state elections voters in the 10th wiped out the GOP, flipping several state House seats to the Democrats. Analysts noted that the district’s wealthy areas near Washington, packed with traditionally Democratic voters like government workers and union employees, are growing much faster than the rural areas that reelected Wolf for decades.

And yet, turnout at the Loudoun County Republican Committee’s Spring Jamboree in Purcellville last April was the largest in years. The line for BBQ pork sandwiches looped around the community hall as a live band blared oldies rock and kids played cornhole. Comstock was there early, working the line with an easy smile. The queue snaked out the door and down the sidewalk where her primary opponent, retired Air Force Capt. Shak Hill, was handing out stickers.

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