Freedom of religion is a human right, as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but for some religious minorities, holding their beliefs or even just existing can be life-threatening. From the Holocaust in Germany in World War II to the genocide of Yazidis in Iraq by the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017, modern human history is unfortunately rife with instances of people being persecuted for their religious identities.
Knox Thames, SIS/MA and WCL/JD ’01, has spent the past two decades of his career in government supporting the rights of religious minorities around the world as well as working to combat their persecution. He is steadfast in the conviction that all individuals should have the freedom to safely and peacefully hold any religion or belief.
“International standards are clear,” says Thames. “The right to hold any religion or none at all is a right inherently vested with every individual, and no country or power can intervene.”
Since 2001, he has served in various government roles having to do with the intersection of global affairs, religion, and human rights. From 2001 to 2007, he was a counsel at the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which promotes human rights; democracy; and economic, environmental, and military cooperation in the states making up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He also served as the director of policy and research at the US Commission on International Religious freedom from 2009 to 2015.
During the Obama and Trump administrations, he was the first to serve in the special envoy role of special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the State Department. He is currently a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement as well as a visiting expert at the US Institute of Peace. We spoke with Thames to learn more about his impressive career as well as his time at SIS.
Becoming Drawn to Advocacy
Thames graduated with a BA in history from Georgetown College in Kentucky, his home state, and joined AmeriCorps to serve as a volunteer in the World Relief program. He worked to help refugees resettle in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I grew up in a small town in rural Kentucky, and it just wasn't a very diverse place. When I moved down to Atlanta and started working with refugees, for the first time I was making friends with people who had suffered unimaginable things because of their skin color, their race, their religion,” says Thames. “And I wanted to do more. I wanted to help. I wanted to try to equip myself to be an advocate for those who need their voices to be heard.”
This experience prompted Thames to pursue the duel MA/JD program at SIS and WCL. His law school training helped him to think critically and make strong arguments, while his time at SIS equipped him to become more effective as a human rights advocate. Earning both degrees gave him a competitive edge in the job market as well: “In this competitive environment, every little bit of extra advantage is crucial to landing that first job.”
While at SIS and WCL, Thames sought out experiences that would strengthen his skillset and knowledge in human rights. He served as an intern on the legal team of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees regional office, and during his last semester, he interned at the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular internship opened the door for his first job as a counsel at the Commission, which was the initial stepping stone in his career focusing on freedom of religion.
“SIS is a great learning environment that is intellectually challenging but also very welcoming. The fact that it’s in DC positions students for incredible opportunities,” says Thames. “My experience at SIS and WCL couldn’t have been a better form of preparation for my career.”
Promoting Religious Freedom for All
From 2013 to 2016, Thames spent time teaching officers who were training to become military leaders at the US Army War College. This was in the context of a post-9/11 environment in which the US still had missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thames wanted to help American service members and diplomats who would be involved in those conflicts understand the religious landscapes of both countries.
“Our opponents, [the Taliban and ISIS], they saw the world through their religious lens, a very twisted one, but one that gave them a narrative and a way to explain what they were doing and their goals,” says Thames. “We need to understand what those communities are thinking, believing, and hearing from the pulpits. And if there are other voices in the community who are pushing back and are credible, we need to make sure there’s a civic space in society where those different voices can compete without fear of being murdered or jailed. This is where, I think, human rights work, religious freedom work, and national security policy all intersect.”
Thames believes that one of the keys to quelling conflict is creating an environment in which everyone can freely practice their beliefs, whether they include deities or none at all, and can then safely express their beliefs without fear of repercussion: “We've seen through studies, through experience, that countries that protect the right of individuals to peacefully practice their religion—or practice the absence of religion—they're going to be more stable, more productive, more creative, better partners for the United States, and better able to combat the virus of violent extremism.”
US Government Initiatives to Expand Religious Freedoms
During his time serving as special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the State Department in the Obama administration, Thames worked to expand spaces for religious minorities to live in peace and with security. He also pursued an initiative to protect the cultural heritage of the Yazidis, a religious minority group indigenous to western Asia. As part of ISIS’s genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq, they aimed to erase historical evidence that the Yazidi communities had ever existed. Thames worked not only to have the Obama administration designate the ISIS atrocities as a genocide but also—in partnership with the Smithsonian—to train religious community leaders in Iraq on cultural heritage preservation.
“We addressed questions like, ‘What do you do when your church or temple is ransacked by ISIS? How do you pick up the pieces so that you can restore it back to its original condition? If you have a special chalice or icon, how do you document its provenance so that if it gets stolen, you can get it back?’” says Thames.
He is most proud of an initiative he led during the Trump administration. He pitched the idea of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, a series of ministerial meetings that would focus on international religious freedom. For the two years that Thames oversaw the initiative, 100 countries and 1,000 members of civil society convened; the initiative is ongoing and takes place in a different country each year. His team also brought survivors of persecution to the meetings so they could share their stories firsthand.
“We had Christians of every denomination, Rohingya Muslims, Uyghur Muslims, Yazidis from Iraq, Baháʼís from Iran, Hindus from Bangladesh, a rabbi from Yemen, an atheist—just to show how religious persecution can take place anywhere and victimize any community,” says Thames. “These convenings were a great expression of American leadership, American values, and the importance of working with other countries to advance religious freedom for all.”
Thames notes, though, that this doesn’t mean the US is perfect in this area: “At the domestic level, we have problems with antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism. We need to continue to work to perfect our union…. The US has a really important leadership role to play, where we can take our lessons learned from our imperfect history and say, ‘This is how we dealt with these issues, and here are the international standards that we've all agreed to. We are urging you to do better, to let these people out of jail, to change your laws, to allow these groups to meet peacefully, to protect them from harm.’”
He also differentiates governments and groups murdering, torturing, and jailing people for believing in the “wrong” religion from governments restricting gatherings during emergencies: “A country can, such as during COVID, limit worship because it could spread a deadly disease or because a national disaster has occurred. That’s an external expression of faith. But the internal—what one believes, where their conscience leads—no country or government or person can interfere with that individual right.”
How Human Rights and Religious Freedom Go Hand in Hand
The free and peaceful practice of religious beliefs is a process in which a number of rights are involved. For example, freedom of speech is key for religious leaders to be able to give sermons. Freedom of expression allows people to wear religious garb like a Yarmulke or a headscarf.
Thames likens religious freedom as analogous to the canary in the coal mine related to the overall health of human rights in an environment. When religious freedom is respected, then a whole host of other rights are also protected and respected, and this intrinsic relationship is one of the reasons why Thames believes this issue is important to address.
“If religious freedom is in trouble—if it’s being truly diminished or repressed, then other rights are also going to be deprived or pushed down. Religious freedom is not a narrow issue. It’s one that spreads out into all sectors of human rights work,” says Thames. “Issues of religious freedom are relevant everywhere.”