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Can Religious Liberty Bring Taiwan to Build an Alternative International Diplomacy?

Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit focused on what is possible, not what is desirable.

By Marco Respinti

September 19, 2023

Taiwan’s Vice President Lai Ching-Te addressing the Taiwan International Religious Freedom Summit. Source: Presidency of the Republic of China.

The third Taiwan International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit was hosted in Taipei, the city where the government of Taiwan resides, by the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, China Aid Association, and the IRF Secretariat on September 7–8, 2023. The event was co-chaired by former US Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, and Katrina Lantos Swett, former Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and now president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.

Divided into several sessions, the summit focused on the critical situations of Nigeria, North Korea, India and China, including Inner Mongolia, where several religious groups are persecuted, often paying their harmless faith with the lives of their members. Each of the sessions featured a keynote speech, followed by a discussion panel where experts and witnesses took the floor. This writer delivered the keynote speech on China on September 8. [aggiungere il link al testo “Marco Dreadful Daily Drama”]

From the arrangements of the sessions and the structure of the entire event, it seemed clear that the chief aim of the organizers and sponsors was to avoid yet another general-purpose conference. However well-intentioned, by wishing to embrace all possible angles of the problems, they inevitably end up achieving little. Or, out of a similar all-encompassing effort, they tend to favor a theoretical approach. Theory of course is needed but can also sometimes fail to address the daring direct challenges victims face on a daily basis.

The more practical approach followed during the 3rd Taiwan IRF Summit was made evident by the choice of analyzing only a few precise areas of concern, however vast. This maintained the debates on the similarly practical path of attempting to propose solutions, some of them even immediate. They included the search for the most effective way to denounce FoRB violations through media and campaigns, to grant timely responses to crises where violence and killings are involved, or to organize relief and assistance to victims. Some may find this approach original, or perhaps limited. On the contrary, it resulted in a focused conference, whose principal reason for being summoned was trying to suggest the possible, instead of chasing the desirable.

Personal discussions and network activities were then strategic above the average level of international events of this kind. They made the conference especially successful for the attendees.

The venue of the event, the Grand Hotel in Taipei, added prestige to its works. Located in Zhongshan District, well-known to tourists, on the Yuanshan Mountain that overlooks the Keelung River, it is a flamboyant red edifice, resembling the shape and majesty of a royal palace. On its site, there once stood a major Shinto Shrine, built at the time of the Japanese colonization, which was destroyed in October 1944 by the crash of a cargo plane. In 1953, after the Kuomintang re-settled in Taiwan from mainland China, following the defeat in the civil war fought against the Communists, the head of the state, General Chiang Kai‐shek (1887–1975), commissioned a fancy building that could represent his power and serve as a facility for accommodating foreign ambassadors to the new country.

The Grand Hotel, Taipei. Credits.

After the death of General Chiang, who ruled Taiwan establishing Martial Law in 1949, some members of the opposition movement secretly gathered in one of the rooms of the Grand Hotel and founded the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on September 28, 1986. The Martial Law was lifted on July 15 of the following year 1987, and today the DPP is ruling Taiwan.

The interest of the DPP-led government and other Taiwanese institutions in the topic discussed at the Taiwan IRF Summit is strong. During the event, it was well symbolized by the speeches and dinners which were delivered and hosted by the Minister of Interior, Lin Yu-Chang, the Vice President of the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan, Lai Ching-Te, and the Speaker of Legislative Yuan, Yu Shy-Kun, all from the DPP. It is worth noting that Speaker Yu’s interest in religious liberty in Taiwan is not new. He participated in the IRF Religious Liberty Summit, co-chaired by Brownback and Lantos Swett in Washington, D.C., earlier in 2023. He also discussed the topic in the Spring of this year with a delegation of Western scholars and observers, led by “Bitter Winter,” in the Legislative Yuan of Taipei and gave an interview to this writer (who was part of the Westen delegation visiting Taiwan), which was published by a major Italian national newspaper.

Marco Respinti with Speaker Yu Shy-Kun.

Two modest proposals can then be advanced for future IRS Summits in general, wherever they may be hosted, as well as specifically for those held in Taiwan. The first comes from a relevant reflection by Nadine Maenza, former Chair of USCIRF and president of the IRF Secretariat. Discussing the topic with the undersigned one morning at breakfast, she pointed out that people seriously interested in FoRB should find a way to act in face of those situations where there is no government that can be held accountable for trespasses and crimes. Libya, Somalia, and Yemen are for example countries, she noted, where religious persecution is high, yet they fall out of the USCIRF’s mandate and escape its radars. How could the persecutors be confronted is something that should be properly focused on in coming international meetings.

As to the second proposal, that for Taiwan, it emerges from the answer to a question that was put from the audience during the final wrap-up discussion on September 8 by Eric Roux, Chair of the IRF Roundtable in Brussels. Taiwan doesn’t have a FoRB roundtable yet, or a shared place where all problems concerning religious persecution, domestic and international, may be discussed at length and off-records, and only eventually lead to agreed common public actions. If established, such a place of open and peaceful debate could contribute much to the aspiration of Taiwan, at all levels, to be regarded as the beacon of democracy in a trouble area of the world as well as internationally.

Sam Brownback and Katrina Lantos Swett at the Summit.

On the eve of the Taiwan IRF Summit, Chris Horton, a journalist based in Taipei, published a well-informed and relevant article on “The China Project,” a New-York-based media outlet aiming at providing alternative news on the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Retelling and reminding the story of how ROC was expelled by the UN in 1971 at PRC’s will, and the subsequent inaptitude of the West to grant ROC some international recognition, Horton suggests that the UN is highly dependent on PRC to this date on many international scenarios.

Delegates kept Horton’s article in mind, and constantly compared ROC and PRC as to religious liberty during the event held at the Grand Hotel in Taipei. ROC’s government insist on the need to recognize that abyssal difference at an international level. Taiwan IRF Summit seems to have represented the general rehearsal for a possible forthcoming alternative international diplomacy, able to bypass the powerful PRC’s veto against Taiwan. It would be an international diplomacy based on religious liberty, which may be able to attract the support of the US and other countries. It would not be like involving Taiwan in the UN, which is still impossible, but it would create parallel international forums.

Taiwanese seem to need this as they need the air to breathe, sacrificing much for it. Beyond politics, which is not in the interest of “Bitter Winter” to discuss per se, FoRB advocates may find this attempt by Taiwan interesting—a project, given the situation of the Island, both extremely difficult and fascinating. After all, religious liberty is the first political human right.


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