US ambassador: 'Religious freedom is the most important foreign relations topic today'

The US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback, made his first public appearance yesterday addressing Muslim, Jewish, and Christians leaders gathered to discuss their shared commitment to promoting peace and protecting religious minorities in the Muslim world.

Brownback told the delegates at the Alliance of Virtue for the Common Good conference in Washington, DC: 'I think religious freedom is the most important foreign relations topic today.'

ReutersSam Brownback is the new US ambassador for religious freedom.

The ambassador, whose speech was reported by the Catholic News Agency (CNA), added: 'The world needs reconciliation. It needs it between the Abrahamic faiths.'

Brownback, the former controversial Republican governor of Kansas, was speaking at the three-day event hosted by the Middle East-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, which culminates today in the signing of a declaration on religious freedom.

On the steering committee for the interfaith conference is Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of the Archdiocese of Washington, along with Rabbi David Saperstein and other Muslim and evangelical leaders.

According to the CNA, the 'Washington Declaration' will build upon the 2016 'Marrakesh Declaration', which affirmed the rights of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries, by adding an additional call to respect Muslims living in the US. Hundreds of Muslim scholars and leaders from more than 60 countries signed the Marrakesh Declaration, according to the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.

Finland's foreign minister, Timo Soini, spoke of his experience as being part of a Catholic minority in a Lutheran-majority country. Soini, who has worked with Iraqi Christian refugees in Finland, told the CNA that 'the Christian minorities are the most persecuted people at the moment. And that must be said aloud...this is something for us western and European people to be outspoken [about].'

A Nigerian nun, Sister Agatha O Chikelue, was invited to speak at the conference about her interfaith peace-building work among Christians and Muslims. 'I want to hear the experiences of others from different parts of the world on how they managed their conflict, how the improved their interreligious dialogue, so that I can bring this back home to Africa,' Sr Agatha told the CNA.

She is the executive director of the Cardinal Onaiyekan Foundation for Peace which works with refugees displaced by the Boko Haram, and has created a network for Christian and Muslim women to work together to stand up against violence.

Addressing the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders, Chikelue said that the Marrakesh Declaration reminds her of the Second Vatican Council document 'Nostra Aetate' ('In our time'), 'which gave us the room to embrace people, to extend our hands in fellowship to other people from other religious communities, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists'.

She added: 'If we, the Catholics, have seen this 50 years ago, and the Muslims have seen it now, and understood the need for us to work together, then what stops us from doing that? So, it is only left to us to use this Marrakesh Declaration, use the Second Vatican Council, to build a platform for us to discover our commonalities.'