VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 10/20/11)—On Tuesday, October 18, Leo S. Thorne, associate general secretary for Mission Resource Development with American Baptist Churches USA (ABCUSA), attended the launch of the Department of State’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group in Washington, DC. Also at the meeting as one of the Co-Chairs was ABCUSA’s United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Suzan Johnson Cook.
This Working Group is one of five initiated by Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as part of her Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. At the start of the meeting U.S. officials shared a key issue and an unprecedented opportunity to address it: combating religious violence, discrimination and bigotry and new opportunities provided by UN Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Istanbul Process to lead its implementation. Resolution 16/18 provides a framework for practical and legal steps to address actions stemming from religious intolerance without banning speech.
According to notes for the launch meeting, the goal of the Working Group is to engage in “a continuing dialogue with religious leaders and other members of civil society that informs U.S. foreign policy and fosters common partnerships with the NGO community, including faith-based groups, in support of conflict mitigation and development as well as efforts to promote human rights, including religious freedom.” Attention at the first meeting was focused on identifying the most pressing challenges and the most concrete opportunities for partnership, especially regarding the practical relationship between religious freedom and stability and democracy.
Said Ambassador Johnson Cook, “It is exciting to be part of a brilliant and visionary Administration that is committed to dialogue between the US Government and Civil Society. The live web chat we hosted on Wednesday, October 19 had more than 30 of our Embassies and Consulates tuning in. The discussion reiterated,” continued Johnson Cook, “the historic move of this Administration to integrate and include religious freedom as a part of the world’s conversation. Not only will more voices be heard, but the process in which we are engaged will also open more doors around the globe for me as I embark upon this journey as Ambassador at Large.”
The creation of the Working Group is to establish a mechanism through which religious leaders and experts worldwide and members of the U.S. government can interact, by identifying and convening a core group of 25 outstanding civil society representatives to meet with State Department officials on Religion and Foreign Policy once per quarter in 2012. The Working Group, the first of its kind, seeks to advise the U.S. Government in matters pertaining to religion and foreign policy and will conduct its work in three Sub-Groups: Religious Engagement and Conflict Prevention/Mitigation; International Religious Freedom, Stability and Democracy; and Faith-Based Groups and Development and Humanitarian Assistance.
Following his attendance at the first meeting of the Working Group, Thorne said, “It appears to me that this is not just another committee or work group. I sense a serious and staunch commitment by the Administration to commit top and senior level U.S. Department of State staff to be engaged in an historic moment of opportunity in the domestic and international religious landscape. The United States could well become a model to other countries as this process seeks to engage religious groups to find ways to be true to themselves while striving for the common good.”
American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with 5,500 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.