10/07/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

It's Time to Get Serious About Freedom of Religion

KHALIL MAZRAAWI via Getty Images

Looking back, future historians may well identify 2014 as the year in which Christianity in Iraq was dealt a final, mortal blow. The advance of Islamic State radicals and the death and destruction they left in their wake had Christians flee Mosul and surrounding Nineveh Province, an area of relative peace and quiet for religious minorities. They had already fled Baghdad and other cities in Central and Southern Iraq in years past. Some Christians stay in Kurdish controlled areas and hope for better times, but most have left for Jordan, Sweden, the United States. In those places, far away from their roots, they cling on to languages and traditions dating back to the first churches in the first century, AD.

Most of us have at least heard something about the fate of Iraq's Christians. Or of those in captivity due to blasphemy laws in Pakistan, such as Asia Bibi. But who has heard of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma, atheists in Saudi Arabia or Hindus in Bangladesh? Pew Forum, a U.S. think tank, concludes in a report in January this year that no less than three quarters of the world's population lives in countries with high or very high restrictions on religion, with this proportion trending upwards.

This is shocking. For the vast majority of world population faith is a core part of identity. The hundreds of millions who do not have a state- or society-sanctioned religion or belief live in a state of permanent prison of the heart and mind. This is happening in the age of information, where ideas are supposed to flow freely around the world. It is time to get more serious about fighting religious persecution.

Doing more begins with finding the political will to use the many tools already at our disposal. Some countries, particularly in Europe, also need to shake of a reluctance to intervene in cases of religious persecution. Such interventions do not automatically mean 'us versus them', or 'Christians defending Christians.' On the contrary, a track-record of even-handedness will greatly increase credibility across cultural and religious divides.

To begin with, freedom of religion or belief is recognized as a universal human right by all major international human rights conventions. The International Criminal Court should do more to prosecute systemic or widespread religious persecution as a crime against humanity.

The fine print of trade agreements and development partnerships nearly always contains a human rights conditionality clause. State parties to these agreements should use the agreements and the financial and political levers they provide as tools for improvement of the right to freedom of religion.

Leading donors should spend a larger share of their funds on the fight against religious persecution. This is money well spent as religious freedom encompasses several other rights, such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Governments should also be more willing to grant asylum to those persecuted for their faith.

Some new and potentially useful tools have been developed recently. In 2009 France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a 'religions unit' (pôle Religions) in its research department. This was done after the realization that knowing more about global trends in religions may provide extremely valuable information about past, current and future conflicts, but also about opportunities for reconciliation. More countries should follow this example.

Last year, the European Union issued guidelines for its diplomats on freedom of religion or belief. The guidelines contain many good ideas about how to recognize (coming) persecution. However, for the implementation of the various steps of sanctions as described in the guidelines the EU will have to find more political will then what's currently in stock.

One thing the EU guidelines overlooked is the role of religious leaders. Policymakers should engage, rather than eschew, religious leaders. They may be the problem in a number of countries, but they may also hold the key to solutions. Encouraging them to preach tolerance and making clear that hate speech is not acceptable may help to restored respect for religious freedom.

Finally, for some in the West attitudes may have to change as well. A more rigorous approach to religious freedom is only credible if internal and external policies are coherent. Bans on minarets or on wearing religious symbols are unhelpful and in fact classified as restrictions on freedom of religion by Pew Forum and others.

Faith can be extremely powerful. In a world where religion is often used to hurt and break down, let's try and channel this power to heal and build up.