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Peter Burns: Advancing Religious Freedom in the Middle East

Passages alumnus, Peter Burns, was deeply inspired by his Israel experience in 2016. Before traveling to Israel, Peter only saw himself involved in U.S.-focused politics and policy. He never imagined that his career would shift towards foreign policy and advocating for religious freedom.

Peter Burns (right)

Growing up in a Christian family in the Midwest, Peter had a strong sense of American history and American founding principles. But he wasn’t really familiar with foreign policy. He knew of Israel in the Old Testament, biblical sense, but nothing about the modern State of Israel, or the surrounding region.

“I had a sense of what Israel was but no sort of sense of the modern history, the modern state, and really my understanding of historic Israel lacked context for the Jewish people and the history of the region. It was out of context.”

As a kid, Peter used to watch Ray Vander Laan’s videos of the Holy Land. “We’d watch these videos of him walking around the Holy Land taking about these spots,” Peter said. “As a kid I always thought how cool it would be to go and walk around and see the different spots. To see the Garden of Gethsemane and to see the Jordan River and so forth. [It] alway seemed like this cool thing, but never thought as a kid that I would do that someday.”

When Peter first experienced the Holy Land for himself in 2016, he recognized that it had impacted more than just his faith. He now had the context he'd been lacking and was determined to let his experiences in Israel shape his work moving forward. He knew his career was about to change.

“What I observed in Israel brought me to new life!” Peter said. “I walked where Jesus walked and taught. I saw first-hand the struggles experienced by Jews, Christians, Palestinians and Arabs alike and I mourned the history of the Jewish people as I struggled through the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I prayed about the difference [it] could make in my life when I returned.”

Those prayers led Peter to dedicate himself to advancing religious liberty in the Middle East.

Peter shared, “I could see God knitting all my past experiences together, with the relationships I’ve developed, and the passion I have for advocacy for those suffering. The trip to the Holy Land catalyzed all that together!”

Peter Burns (right) in Israel in 2016

After experiencing the Holy Land with Passages, Peter went on to join the staff of Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback –– who later became the Ambassador for Religious Freedom. Gov. Brownback mentored Peter, marking the start of Peter’s work in the International Religious Freedom space.

"I work in a space that is referred to in D.C., think tank, foreign policy circles, as ‘International Religious Freedom.’ What most people would call it is ‘persecution based on religious belief.’ We obviously have things going on in the U.S. that concern us, but what we really look at is international,” explained Peter. “So that looks like in China you have the Christian church being persecuted and Uyghur Muslims being persecuted. In India you have Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. All over the world, something different. Those are the issues I work with.”

After working with Gov. Brownback, Peter went on to work for In Defense of Christians –– a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group working to aid persecuted Christians throughout the Middle East.

Now, Peter works as the Executive Director of the International Religious Freedom Summit (IRFS), a coalition of organizations working together to promote religious freedom around the world.

“We bring together over a thousand people from around the world into D.C. to highlight theses issues,” explained Peter. “Everyone from Hollywood celebrities to foreign heads of state to leaders of the U.S. … come to participate and elevate these issues and bring attention.”

Alongside his role at IRFS, Peter shared about his work with Christian charities, “I also have a small consultancy where I work with some Christian charities and other groups, advising them on these issues, trying to help them be more effective around countering persecution based on religion.”

Peter (center) at the 2021 IRF Summit

Peter shared his thoughts on the future of the International Freedom space and the impact he hopes to have through his career:

The U.S. especially, and Western countries generally, have become post-religious. We often make mistakes in our foreign policy because we approach the rest of the world as if it were also post-religious. We saw this all throughout our engagement with the Middle East over the last 20 years. What you see is a misunderstanding of the motivations of the people we are working with, or engaging with, in other parts of the world. We don’t account for the depth and seriousness of their religious convictions. So [we are] trying to bring that understanding back into foreign policy, and that’s really where religious freedom is such an important element. It gives context and a framework to talk about and understand communities based on some of their most deeply held beliefs. 

For us in the West, most people are not waking up in the morning and thinking about their identity as ‘I am a Christian, Anglo man.’ But that’s the way a lot of the rest of the world wakes up in the morning. They wake up and are like ‘I am a Muslim,’ that’s sort of the first thing about their identity they are thinking about in the morning. When we go in and want to treat them as if that’s a secondary issue, we often get things wrong. We’ve seen those mistakes play out. 

My hope is that through the capacities I’m working in, [I’d] be able to impact and help us do foreign policy better — and do engagement with religion better. To understand the world better and really, understand people better. 

We only get to the bottom of conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when we actually get at what people’s identities are, and what the driving motivations for the conflict are. It’s usually not actually whether you have access to the water generator or whatever it may be, it’s usually some really deeply held, personal, core identity issue that is then bubbling up into all these little fissures. That’s what I have a passion for and want to work on.

Peter’s story is a powerful one. A trip to Israel was a catalyst in his life. Peter said that, “[Going to Israel with Passages] was like a missing puzzle piece that clarified a lot things ... it was the first foot through the door of the rest of my life that I didn’t see coming at all." From a trip to Israel, Peter gained clarity on his place in God’s story — launching him into kingdom work.

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