WASHINGTON - Promoting religious freedom around the world is an American priority. However, when it comes to dealing with fragile states like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, U.S. officials have to get creative. Punitive policies like sanctions can weaken already dysfunctional governments and further devastate conditions on the ground for people of faith. Instead, a "love thy neighbor" approach proves more effective.
Take Syria for example.
"Armed actors have laid siege to communities with sizable religious minority populations, defacing and destroying Yazidi and Christian shrines, and detained, prosecuted, even tortured Yazidi, Christian, and other religious minority communities for their religious beliefs," says Nadine Maenza, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
In some places, finding ways to facilitate peace can save entire communities.
"State attempts to eliminate the presence of at least one religious group from the country have been recorded in: Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan...you get the picture," explained James Patton, CEO of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, during a recent hearing held by USCIRF.
Patton and other experts say a deeper understanding of the culture and engaging with those under duress in country would make a tremendous difference.
"You know, we need to stop looking for English speakers because oftentimes they're not the best representations of the communities that we're seeking to help in these countries. We need to look outside the elite," said Maenza during an interview with CBN News.
"You know, rural people, women who have a different understanding of how they think of themselves and how they think the world works," said Ebrahim Moosa, professor at the Keough School at the University of Notre Dame.
"Knowledge of the lived faith traditions, knowledge of the lived conflict, knowledge of what is in the way and what will help things get out of the way is all held within the communities," said Patton.
Including how local cultures and customs mesh with religion.
"We always say that a Christian in Lebanon is completely different or to a large extent very different from a Christian from the United States or otherwise even in the way he reads and he lives his faith," said Eli Al Hindy with the Adyan Foundation for Diversity, Solidarity, and Human Dignity in Lebanon.
USCIRF makes recommendations to America's diplomats and commissioners believe these approaches can make a real difference for people facing challenges in their everyday lives just because of how they worship.