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Q&A: Finding hope in religious conflict around the world
Daniel Mark - photo by Kelsey Dallas
When religious freedom activists survey the global religious landscape, they find many reasons to be pessimistic. People of faith are under attack from ISIS, Boko Haram and other extremists, and there is no clear path to peace.

For Daniel Mark, a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the situation is both a challenge and an opportunity. Headlines about terrorist attacks and other religiously motivated violence are heartbreaking, but they also remind politicians and everyday people of the work the commission does.

"To the extent that Americans can recognize the importance of religious freedom and make it a priority for our government, they'll be helping our country, the commission and, hopefully, people around the world," said Mark, who is also a professor of political science at Villanova University.

USCIRF offers policy recommendations to the Obama administration, the State Department and Congress based on the research it conducts into global religious freedom violations. The commission and its staff produce an annual list of just countries of particular concern, whereas a similar report from the State Department offers an overview of religious freedom in every country in the world.

The group's nine members are appointed by Republican and Democratic congressional leadership and the president. Mark was appointed by former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner in 2014, and his two-year term ends in May.

Although USCIRF focuses on religious freedom issues in other countries, Mark recently joined prominent academics and faith leaders on the Marco Rubio Campaign's religious freedom advisory board. Republicans and Democrats increasingly disagree on what constitutes appropriate religious freedom protections, and, by joining this group, Mark hopes to foster cooperation and effective action.

Mark spoke with us about the status of religious freedom around the world and offered advice for anyone who wants to help protect this human right.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the most pressing issues the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is addressing right now?

Unfortunately, there are many issues to address in the world.

In general, the thing that's most on people's mind is the situation in the Middle East with ISIS. The scale, the brutality of what ISIS is doing has captured the attention of the world. It's, in some ways, unprecedented.

It's also one of the hardest situations to deal with, because the mechanisms of relationships between governments that we usually work through are not really applicable.

Would most people characterize what ISIS is doing as an attack on religious freedom?

I hope people do. I think that the attacks in Paris, for example, which were very much connected, were not just an attack on innocent civilians. It was an attack on people who don't believe the way (ISIS) does.

More obviously, ISIS is persecuting Christians, the Yazidis and other minorities in the Middle East. Anyone who is informed about the situation there, even minimally, should be aware of the way in which ISIS has particularly targeted some of these very vulnerable religious minorities.

It's true that majorities such as Sunni Muslims, who don't believe quite the version of Islam that ISIS believes, are persecuted as well, but those who have taken the worst of it have been small minority groups.

There is an unmistakable element of religious persecution here.

Religious freedom has emerged as a key issue in this year's presidential election. Do you see it as a problem that Republicans and Democrats can't agree on how to address and protect this right?

Religious freedom is something I'd like to think of as an issue that both parties can agree on. The commission that I serve on is a nonpartisan organization. We have members appointed by both parties, and one would like to think that religious freedom would lead to agreement across the aisle.

In some cases, that's certainly true. But it's also the case, unfortunately, that some of the partisanship from Washington tends to creep in. The parties disagree on what religious freedom is exactly, debating whether it's just another human right or if it has a pride of place in our system.

How do you define religious freedom?

On the commission, we focus on the definition in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rather than what's in the First Amendment.

It guarantees the right of every person to worship in private or in public as an individual or in a group. We really like that formulation because it gives such a robust definition and makes clear that what individuals do shouldn't be confined to their homes. Religious freedom is not the kind of thing that should only include prayer, instead of all manner of religious practices and beliefs.

We are careful to say religion or belief, in order to include people with no religious belief at all. It's really important for us to promote the idea that true religious freedom includes the right of people to express their faith publicly.

You were recently announced as a member of Marco Rubio's religious freedom advisory board. Why did you agree to participate in this group, and what do you hope to achieve?

Marco Rubio is one of the candidates on the Republican side who I really like. He has a very strong record of supporting religious freedom in the Senate.

It's my role to help advise the Rubio campaign on these issues so that we can ensure that he's bold in supporting religious freedom.

As we were just discussing, there are all kinds of political calculations that come into the campaign. There is, unfortunately, a partisan divide on religious freedom, especially on domestic issues.

To the extent that I can, I'm very glad to be a part of this religious liberty advisory board and help advance the cause of religious freedom.

What can everyday Americans do to better inform themselves about religious freedom. How do we get involved in creating positive change?

I get that question all the time, and there are no easy answers. It's difficult, even as a commissioner, to actually make change.

The first thing for people to do is to inform themselves. For example, on our website, we have an annual report that we put out every year monitoring and reporting on the very worst countries with respect to religious freedom and highlighting key issues. That's a great resource.

Reading the news and focusing on religious freedom-related news stories is something all Americans could benefit from.

And it may sound a little cheesy, but, as we try to move the government and combat religious oppression around the world, prayer is always welcome and encouraged.

After that, it's really a matter of people encouraging their politicians to make religious freedom a key issue. The reason the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created was because there's no natural constituency.

Chambers of commerce lobby on economic affairs. Defense interests lobby on military affairs. There isn't an organized group to promote the cause of religious liberty abroad, but it is an American value. It's certainly in our interests.

Is there reason to be hopeful that there can be change in the short-term?

The short-term can look pretty bleak sometimes. But I think we have to have hope.

Our commission has helped to put together an inter-parliamentary working group, which brings together congressional leaders and parliamentary leaders from throughout the West. They're now working together to do the kind of work we do on the commission, promoting religious freedom within their governments, just as we do here in the U.S.

That group will be a huge boon to the cause of religious freedom around the world. If Western governments all stand for religious freedom together, it will no longer be thought of as a uniquely American cause.
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