Bridging Freedom of Religion or Belief Between Europe and Asia

Asian Panel. From the left: Mr. James Chen, Mr. Bulat Sarsenbayev, Dr. Liu Peng, Dr. Eugene Tan, Ms. Anita Chang


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Executive Summary

What might a bridge between Europe and Central Asia, catalyzing the expansion of Freedom of Religion and Belief (FoRB) throughout Eurasia, look like? It could consist of multi-faith, multinational roundtables fostering initiatives on religious freedom, social cohesion, and economic growth; a diverse range of cross-cultural religious literacy engagements; fostering of multifaith relationships across Eurasia; and targeted religion and rule of law training for governments and law enforcement, supplemented by expert reviews and recommendations for national religious legislation, among other things. The first inklings of this vision were observable during the Institute for Global Engagement’s (IGE) initial engagement with Georgia. However, it is worth exploring these elements in greater detail.

The Religion and Rule of Law Conference, held from June 26-28, 2023, in Tbilisi, Georgia, served as a crucial platform for open discourse on the intersection of religion, law, governance, and security. This event was a collaborative initiative between IGE and Georgia’s State Agency for Religious Issues (SARI). The conference also featured mutually reinforcing activities involving two of IGE’s partners: LYN Community (LYNC) and IRF Secretariat. Besides focusing on international religious freedom standards across diverse political, social, and cultural contexts, the conference explored how Georgia could take part in promoting FoRB in Eastern Europe and bridging Europe and Asia with the aim of expanding FoRB throughout Eurasia. It brought together government officials, religious leaders, academia, and civil society representatives, with the goal of fostering a network of leaders capable of addressing pressing issues around religious freedom and societal unity.

This conference was part of IGE’s “Catalyzing Religious Engagement Networks Worldwide” project with support from the Templeton Religion Trust (TRT). This project focuses on two regions: Eastern Europe and Southern Africa. For Eastern Europe, Georgia serves as a key regional bellwether of FoRB progress or regression, particularly in an Orthodox Christian majority context. Georgia is also situated in a vulnerable security context similar to other countries in the region, which has subsequent impact on FoRB. Thus, IGE felt that much could be learned from holding the conference in Georgia. Five interdependent and mutually reinforcing components served to bolster this initiative:

  1. IGE, in collaboration with its long-standing partner, Brigham Young University Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies (ICLRS), inaugurated the first-ever Religion and Rule of Law conference in Georgia. This program was modeled on previous IGE-ICLRS collaborations in other countries like Vietnam, China, Myanmar, and Uzbekistan.
  2. IGE’s Center for Women, Faith & Leadership (CWFL) equipped associates from LYNC to facilitate a sequence of multi-faith gatherings for women of faith in Georgia. These gatherings, complementary to the main RROL conference, served as an essential extension of the broader dialogue, assessing potential avenues for engaging women of faith in Georgian society.
  3. Considering Georgia’s membership in the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA), SARI organized a meeting at the Georgian Parliament to evaluate the present status of religious freedom and explore potential pathways for further international collaboration.
  4. IGE invited LYNC and its Kazakhstani counterparts to showcase their successful strategy for advancing religious freedom and social cohesion in Central Asia, based upon IGE’s theory of change.
  5. Greg Mitchell, CEO of IRF Secretariat, gave a presentation on the worldwide network of religious freedom roundtables and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Nazarbayev Center (Kazakhstan) and LYNC, aiming to broaden collaborative efforts to advance religious freedom and social cohesion.

A total of 86 participants attended the conference, with 22 from various parts of the world and 64 local participants.

Among the notable figures present were Georgian government leaders such as Giorgi Volski, the First Deputy Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, and Mikheil Sarjveladze, the Chairman of the Parliament’s Human Rights Protection and Civil Integration Committee.

The RROL Conference featured on Georgian News

The religious community was also present with leaders such as Adam Shantadze, the Mufti of All Georgia, and Metropolitan Daniel of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Furthermore, leaders rom the Evangelical Christian, Yazidi, Jewish, Catholic, and other faith communities participated. The Conference garnered considerable attention from the Georgian media landscape, with coverage from three national television networks, further accentuating the event’s broad reach and impact.

Initial challenges


Amidst the preparations for the conference, it became apparent that Georgian religious communities find themselves starkly divided into two distinct platforms with diverging perspectives. On one side is the platform led by SARI Chairman Zaza Vashkamadze, while the more progressive platform is helmed by Beka Mindiashvili, Head of the Tolerance Center (TC) under the auspices of the Georgian ombudsman.

The divide between these platforms is such that members from each side rarely communicate directly or extend event invitations to one another. This schism is further deepened by mutual criticism, with the TC accusing SARI of “gross violations of many religious communities and individuals’ rights.” In return, SARI criticizes the Tolerance Center for stirring controversies merely to secure funding from foreign entities without due consideration for Georgia’s national security and religious heritage.

IGE made an effort to bridge this divide during the conference’s planning stages. Invitations were extended to representatives from both platforms. However, participation from the TC platform was limited, and none of their representatives took the floor to speak, underscoring the significant work still to be done to build trust and mutual understanding between the two sides as well as within the Georgian religious community.

Religion and Rule of Law

The Religion and Rule of Law conference kicked off on June 26th with an official meeting hosted by SARI at the office of the Cabinet of Ministers.

One of the standout points of that meeting was a thought provoking dialogue between SARI Chairman Vashkamadze and Mr. Valeriu Ghiletchi, former Vice President of the Moldovan Parliament.

Their discussion focused on religious legislation and the need for a dedicated state body to oversee religious affairs within a country.

The first day’s program also included a global overview of religious freedom presented by IRF Secretariat president Nadine Maenza, discussions about religious freedom related to national security by BYU Law professor Eric Jensen, and an introduction to international human rights related to freedom of religion by BYU Law professor Elizabeth Clark. An insightful discussion about threats to religious freedom in Georgian territories under Russian occupation was led by Chairman Vashkamadze.

From the left: Mr. Wade Kusack, Mr. Valeriu Ghiletchi, Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab, Mr. Márk Aurél Erszegi, Professor Mark Hill, KC


The second day featured an in-depth exploration of religion and rule of law worldwide. Experts from East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, along with scholars and experts from Poland, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Moldova presented case studies. These case studies, each focusing on Religion and the Rule of Law in their respective countries, provided the participants with diverse regional perspectives on the topic. This international array of insights enriched the dialogue, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of the interplay between religion and law across various global contexts.

Asian Panel. From the left: Mr. James Chen, Mr. Bulat Sarsenbayev, Dr. Liu Peng, Dr. Eugene Tan, Ms. Anita Chang


The final day of the Religion and Rule of Law Conference began with a meeting at the Georgian Parliament. The international delegation was formally welcomed by the Chairman of the Parliament’s Human Rights Protection and Civil Integration Committee, Mikheil Sarjveladze. They engaged in discussions about future directions and potential opportunities for continued collaboration, including the prospect of Georgia hosting of the Ministerial to Advance FoRB in 2024.

The day progressed with the LYNC Kazakhstan partnership presenting a comprehensive plan of action that was followed by a signing ceremony of the Memorandum of Understanding between the LYNC , IRF Secretariat , and Kazakhstan’s N. Nazarbayev Center, marking a new milestone in regional religious engagement and cooperation.1

The MOU creates a pathway for LYNC and IRF Secretariat to organize a national and establish a Religious Freedom Secretariat in Kazakhstan, which will provide leadership and coordination to eight roundtables that will be convened around the country. This strategic move would also enable them to participate in the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions hosted by Kazakhstan. This Kazakhstan Secretariat is important as it has the potential to institutionalize the roundtables as multi-faith, inclusive, equal citizenship models for Central Asia and the world.

The delegation from Kazakhstan included representatives from the government, academia, and Muslim and Christian clergy. The group presented a comprehensive report detailing the development and implementation of the LYNC model in the country, and the subsequent positive ripple effect it had on the religious landscape.

“It took two American women coming to Georgia for us to meet each other.””

The multi-faith meetings for women of faith significantly enriched the Religion and Rule of Law conference by underscoring the importance of multi-faith engagement for advancing covenantal pluralism. As reported by Ms. Halina Kusack, these gatherings proved instrumental in dismantling barriers and cultivating new relationships amongst Georgia’s diverse religious communities. One poignant interaction occurred between a Georgian Christian and a Muslim woman, who highlighted the need for regular, organic exchanges of this nature. The Christian woman said: “It took two American women coming to Georgia for us to meet each other.”

These activities not only complemented the conference’s agenda of intersecting religion, law, governance, and security but also deepened comprehension of the region’s religious diversity, informed policy discussions on religious freedom, and provided practical insights into fostering religious freedom and women’s role in religious life.

The conference concluded with a roundtable discussion on the way forward. A vibrant discussion took place addressing the proposed religious legislation in Georgia. The local participants were notably active, delivering their comments and prompting European experts to contribute their perspectives and experiences regarding specific issues related to the proposed law. The active exchange of ideas and insights in such forums reinforces the significance of the Religion and Rule of Law Conference in shaping the legislative landscape of religious freedom.

Beyond the conference proceedings, delegates had opportunities to visit historical religious sites in Mtskheta, the ancient capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, and the Kakheti region.

Looking Ahead

In light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, developments in this region will have ripple effects not only on Europe, but entire world. Thus, it is important to engage and work with both governments and religious communities to encourage positive and constructive dynamics in addressing issues related to security, governance, social cohesion, and religious freedom.

Moving ahead, IGE will be assessing prospects for further engagement and partnership in Georgia and the Eastern Europe region overall.

1 The unwavering partnership and collaboration between the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), LYN Community (LYNC), and the International Religious Freedom Secretariat (IRF/S) in Uzbekistan have laid the groundwork for a significant expansion of religious freedom summit religious freedom initiatives in Kazakhstan. Beginning in 2013, these organizations adopted a careful and pa5ent approach, pushing forward the cause of religious freedom in Central Asia. Their combined efforts have facilitated the successful transfer of the religious freedom model from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan. Building upon this success, the LYNC-Kazakhstan partnership has further solidified the achievements made. The 2022 Dialogue of Declaration held in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, marked the apex of the collaborative efforts spearheaded by IGE and its broader coalition.