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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

2017 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Samuel Brownback
The Washington Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
May 29, 2018




FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING WITH Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback

TOPIC: 2017 ANNUAL REPORT ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

TUESDAY, MAY 29, 2018, 12:00 P.M. EDT

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for waiting. My name is Benjamin Weber. I’m the director of the Foreign Press Centers. And today we are very, very pleased to welcome Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Brownback to come and brief us on the International Religious Freedom Report. You have a copy of his bio in the announcement. I’ll say only that this is the third phase of a long and distinguished public career, first in the Congress, and then as a governor. We’re pleased that he’s now taken on these duties. And with that, I’ll turn it over to him to make an opening statement.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much. I’m delighted to have you here.

This morning we rolled out the International Religious Freedom Report. It’s the 20th year of the International Religious Freedom Office and the report being put forward. It details the situation of religious freedom around the world. It doesn’t analyze; it reports. And you’ll find in it people being killed for practicing their faith. You’ll find people being put in prison or not allowed to practice their faith at all. And you’ll find more subtle forms of religious persecution taking place as well, all detailed in the report.

Off of that, the Countries of Particular Concern, or the lead provocateurs of religious persecution around the world, will be cited and enumerated within 90 days is what the statue requires. And so we’ll put forward that at a later date. But this is the detailed report.

I think you can say safely that the state of religious freedom has improved over the past 20 years, but the situation remains dire for way too many people around the world, whether it’s the Rohingya in Burma being pushed out, a religious or an ethnic group with – but their faith is a big part of why they’re being pushed out. The Kachin now are being pushed out in the north in Burma. Whether in China it’s people practicing their faith of Christians or Muslims, Buddhists, Falun Gong – all experiencing substantial persecution there. Pakistan – 50 people with life sentences, 17 on death row for blasphemy and apostasy. Russia with what they do to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and many other religious minority groups. You can travel around the world, unfortunately, and find a lot of persecution.

One of the other things that the Secretary announced this morning that I’m very excited about is a ministerial on the topic of religious freedom. This will be the first-ever ministerial done on religious freedom. It’ll be July 25th and 26th here in Washington, D.C. Foreign ministers from around the world will be invited here to discuss what can take place and what do we need to do and next steps on pursuing religious freedom for all. As I mentioned, first-ever ministerial. We hope to gather together likeminded countries and those aspiring to be more free for religion.

Two of the main objectives, goals of the Trump administration are less terrorism and more economic growth. With religious freedom you get both. Religious freedom helps an economy to grow and it produces less terrorism. And this is now in the academic data, on top of the basic issue that it is a fundamental human right. It’s in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s in our First Amendment. It’s in documents supporting human rights around the world. We intend to push it. This administration will be aggressive and pursue actions to pursue religious freedom and fundamental human rights.

And those will be discussed and what we can do to move forward and next steps at the ministerial July 25th and 26th. Invitations will be going out soon to countries, to religious leaders, and NGO and the civil community – all three of which will be invited to participate in this first-ever ministerial on religious freedom.

With that, I’d be happy to take questions that individuals have.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. I think folks know our rules, but I’ll remind you. Please wait for the microphone. And when you do get the microphone, please identify yourself by name and outlet. Please limit yourself to one question.

Why don’t we start with Simon, please?

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Simon Ateba from Today News Africa. In the report, you talked about the religious freedom in Nigeria, and you said it continues to experience significant challenges. For instance, the leader of the Shiite movement, El-Zakzaky, remains in detention three years after he was arrested. What type of engagement do you have with the Nigerian Government in the light of all the challenges that they continue to experience in Nigeria? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, and thanks for mentioning that. As you know, President Trump met with the president of Nigeria within the past couple of weeks. And in their press avail afterwards, one of the first things the President cited was the persecution – the killing – of a number of Christians in Nigeria. And there’s a lot of violence that’s taking place in that country.

My plan is to travel to Nigeria next month to talk with leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, Christian and Muslim leaders, to talk about what we can do to move forward, to reduce the level of violence, to open the way for religious freedom taking place in that country. And I’ve been meeting with a number of different Nigerian leaders, and it’s been a very difficult – I met with three leaders, Christian leaders, last week. And they said to me they used to – Sunday used to be the day they hated to see coming the most, because that’s when most of the attacks would take place, would be on a Sunday, but that it had gotten better in recent times, and they were appreciative of that. But just much progress needs to take place for the government to secure the right of religious freedom.

And remember, our effort is for religious freedom for everybody, regardless of faith, or even if you’re a person without faith, but that you are free to do with your own conscience whatever you choose and that no government has the right to interfere with that. But the government has the right and the responsibility to protect that religious freedom right, and that’s what we’d be pushing with Nigeria.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’re going to go here, then to New York, and then back here. That’s you, sir.

QUESTION: My name is Abdelrahman Youssef. I'm from Egypt but I'm here for Al-Modon Lebanese. And my question is about Egypt. Does the U.S. State Department believe that al-Sisi in Egypt achieved the goals of religious reform that he referred more than three years, and why?

And second question is you mentioned now that religious freedom help to counter terrorism or, like, defeating terrorism. Do you believe that Egypt has enough freedom in religious to defeat it or, like, to counter terrorism? Because, as we know, Egypt – like, now we have, like, a fighting against terrorism in Egypt. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, let me start with the last of those questions and try to work backward. Every country in the world is fighting against terrorism. The United States is fighting against terrorism, and it’s – we’re deploying a great deal of resources in this fight. In my home state of Kansas, we had two guys that were arrested that had terrorist plots to blow up a military base and a airport hangar. And these were people that had self-radicalized in their own faith and were going to attack. But just because you’re fighting terrorism doesn’t mean you limit religious freedom, nor that you should.

As a matter of fact, the best route forward is to allow people to have a broad base of religious freedom so that they don’t fight you, and the one – then you can target in on the ones that radicalize, and that’s what we do here and that’s what we’re saying to governments around the world. Because many of them will put the question the same way as you: “We’re fighting terrorism and we can’t do both of these.” And the actual right answer is no, you have to do both of these or you’re going to spawn more religious terrorism because people will fight you if they don’t believe they’ve been given their own right to pursue their own faith the way they see fit. But if a person radicalizes, if they start to spawn terroristic ideas and actions, the government is fully responsible and needs to get on top of that and deal with that particular person’s situation.

Now, in the case of Egypt, I think there’s – and the report will state that there is much work yet to be done. I’ve been meeting with the Egyptian ambassador. They have a great deal of interest and effort put forward to do more religious freedom for majority and minority faith people in Egypt, and I’m going to continue those engagements, and my hope is that the Sisi government will continue with those as well but also see that religious freedom isn’t something you give up on just to fight terrorism. The opposite is true. You get more religious freedom to get less terrorism.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to New York now, please.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. Ambassador. This is Deepak Arora from thetribuneonline.com from India, New Delhi. Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned about the ministerial meeting in July. Have you invited India for the meeting?

And my second question is that you mentioned about Burma, Pakistan, China, so many incidents take place, and of course, in India. But do you have – do you pass any judgment on this, or do you give any directives to the governments in these countries so that the situation improves?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We’re not stating today the countries that have been invited. Invitations will go out soon to different nations around the world, so I’m not – we’ve not stated today who it is or what countries will be invited. There will be nations from all over the world, from every region of the world, that will be invited.

As far as what we do with governments and countries, what we try to put forward is a series of recommendations, and in Countries of Particular Concern, these are ones there are actual sanctions that we will put forward. Sometimes, in many cases, those have been waived, but my hope is in the future that there’ll be less of those waivings taking place. If a country is going to persecute based upon religion, then there are consequences that should be paid in the international world, and the United States should put those forward and we’re going to work with like-minded countries to pursue those as well.

So we try to work with various governments, the Indian Government as well. There have been, unfortunately, a lot of religious violence that’s taken place in various communities that I get reports from directly from individuals coming from India of violence that they’ve experienced because of who they are in their faith, and that’s wrong. We ask – and ask the Indian Government to pursue more safety, to see justice taking place in these cases where this arises, and we’ll continue to pursue that with the Indian Government as well as with all governments around the world.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Kitty Wang with NTD TV. A question about China. We know that about 20 years ago, United States delinked this human rights issue with trade issue when dealing with China. So right now, it’s another important moment for U.S.-China trade. Do you think it’s all right, it’s important to maybe relink these issues together or use a more holistic methodology to – in dealing with this human rights issues and push back on the religious persecution?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. It’s a great question and it’s a great thought that you’re putting forward. When we had the annual debate previously on normal trade relations with China, it was normally – it was an annual vote that took place in the Congress, and each year there’d be a discussion of human rights, along with economic issues, as that vote would come up. And then permanent normal trade relations were voted on and given to China, and so we don’t have that annual discussion.

But there are many people that want this discussion to take place and to pursue this more and more, because you see the situation, whether it’s with the Uighurs – that’s a number of people in reeducation camps now, and the stories I’m hearing about during Ramadan of what’s taking place to Uighur practitioners. The Christian community has experienced a great deal of difficulty in many parts of China. The Buddhists – the Dalai Lama situation, the case is well known and documented over years. Falun Gong practitioners and what has happened to them.

So I think these need to be robustly discussed and put forward. The administration has a number of agenda items with China now, and one of those agenda items is human rights and religious freedom.

MODERATOR: Sir.

QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Ambassador. This is Sari al-Khalili from Al Jazeera. My question is on Saudi Arabia. Until this very moment, the Saudis still label Christians and Jews as unbelievers in their curriculums. So to what scale is the U.S. Government working with the Saudis to change that fact?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Working a lot. And this has been a topic for a number of years. First, I want to start off by saying that I’m very pleased to hear what the crown prince is talking about and changes in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has been a Country of Particular Concern for years, maybe, I think, really from the outset of the report. But now he’s talking about major changes, and we’re working aggressively with the Saudi Government to see those actualized, those words put into action. And I’m very hopeful for this season.

But as I cited – we cite in the report, the situation continues on the ground, very difficult. You can’t openly practice another faith outside of the one identified by the government. And I think we’ve just got to continue to press them. So I’m hopeful of the situation there, but we’ve got to see the actions follow.

MODERATOR: One, two, three, and then come back up front. Here first, please, and then we will get you, sir. We have time for everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Soojin Park, Korea Economic Daily. My question is on North Korea. As you describe, North Korea in the worst situation in the world in terms of human right and religious freedom. As you may know, there will be unprecedented summit between the United States and North Korea in June 12. Do you think the – are there – many expect that the denuclearization issue may well be the main topic of the summit, but many insist that human right and the religious freedom can be, should be the topic of the agenda of the summit. Do you believe the issue can be the – should be the summit – agenda of the summit? And do you – any plan to advise your Mr. President to this topic? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for the question. And in many respects, religious freedom and human rights has already been discussed with the three people that the Secretary brought back that were let out of prison.

And I want to start off too by saying how much I appreciate the Trump administration really focusing on North Korea. I’ve worked – I carried the North Korean Human Rights Bill when I was in the Senate, and couldn’t get administrations to address it because it was just too difficult of a topic. Well, this administration has jumped into, has jumped into it aggressively, and I’m glad they have, and it needs to be addressed.

The human rights situation is deplorable. The gulags that exist with thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, North Korean citizens in them. It sounds like a Soviet-era statement and situation. So it’s my hope that this can really – the situation can move forward. The administration has its agenda that it’s going to put forward, but it’s already freed three people, and I look for them to have a number of topics that will come out of these discussions. And I’m glad the engagement’s happening, and it’s already producing some fruit.

QUESTION: And so do you have any advice for the President?

MODERATOR: No, sir, just --

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: He has a number of people running it. If there are things that I can provide, I will.

MODERATOR: This gentleman.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Haykaram Nahapetyan with the Armenian TV. The de-Christianization of the Middle East and Near East is in process, and the exodus of Christians is in process. And due to some estimates, if the tendency remains in place, at some point there will be no Christian in the lands that – where Christianity technically was born historically. So to what extent this issue is on agenda, and what the administration is taking – what steps the administration takes in order to prevent the de-Christianization of Middle East and Near East, and will the ministerial meeting that will take place in July also handle this situation? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, it’ll be there, because that’s the – it’s the basis of religious freedom is. you have a right to choose, wherever you are, whoever you are, your faith and your faith’s trajectory. And that’s going to be a part of the discussion of what takes place with Middle Eastern countries. We’ve seen what’s taken place with Christians and Yezidis in northern Iraq, in the Nineveh Plains, and this administration has stepped in to address that with the fight against ISIS. ISIS virtually removed now out of Iraq, and they had 30 percent of the terrain when this administration started, and now with rebuilding funds going into that Nineveh Plains area to help Christians and Yezidis resettle back in that region that they were driven out of. Now, those funds have been slow to get there. The Vice President announced that effort to do it, but it’s moving forward, and it will proceed on forward.

I think we’ve got a lot of work to do in the Middle East for religious freedom, and this has been unfortunately a very difficult spot for minority faiths for decades now. And you’ve seen these numbers of minority population, particularly Christians, have shrunk for decades. I held hearings on this when I was in the Senate 10, 15 years ago, and you were seeing the trend lines at that time. But we’re going to push aggressively on the topic of religious freedom, and this will involve also pressing in the Middle East for religious freedom. And part of that too is that you would be secure in your own faith wherever you are and that the government is responsible to secure your protection even if you’re a minority faith person. That that’s part of the government’s role is that protection of your right. And we’ll push that on countries in the Middle East too.

MODERATOR: So we’ll get the gentleman in the back and then to Mr. Huang and then to Laurie.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir. So this is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan. Sir, this is about religious freedom in South Asia, especially in Pakistan and India. You just mentioned Pakistan as a CPC country.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: No, it’s on a special watch list, Pakistan. Pakistan.

QUESTION: In the special watch, not in the CPC. So, sir, if we talk about Pakistan, India, in Pakistan during the last five years there are so much legislations to protect the minorities and governments trying to stop the misuse of blasphemies law, as you just noted. So while, if we talk about India, they even did not allow the U.S. commission on human right – on religious freedom to visit India to monitor the situation. I hope you are well aware about it.

So, sir, is there – I mean, are you advising to put these countries on the CPC list or not, or just on the special watch list?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I’m not announcing the position I’ll take on any of those or that our office will. That’ll be an internal discussion that we’ll work, and as I noted at the outset, the report’s put out today, and then that starts a clock ticking that the Countries of Particular Concern, entities of particular concern are announced within 90 days of when the report’s put out. So that will come out within the next three months on those countries and on others.

I note that recently Pakistan was put on this special watch list, which is a new category that the Frank Wolf law created. We didn’t have these sort of – the special watch list category, but that was created in the 2016 amendments to this law, and Pakistan was put on – is the only country to date that’s been put on that special watch list.

And then I noted earlier the deep concern of the – what’s happening to a lot of people in India today, but those recommendations and those determinations done by the Secretary will come out in the next 90 days.

QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. Paul Huang from The Epoch Times. Follow-up question regarding China and the reeducation camps in Xinjiang that imprison the Uighurs. Has the commission established a number, how many people are in these camps, and the condition in these camps?

And the second question: There have been growing, unconfirmed reports about Uighur women being pressured, in some cases coerced, into marrying Han Chinese men in return for the release of their families from these reeducation camps. Has the commission received such report and is it something that’s being investigated? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, I don’t have a direct comment to make on those two specific statements of what you have. I can say that the – I met with a number of Uighur representatives. I met – I was just at a roundtable, our religious freedom roundtable, and we had a Uighur representative there. They have all been noting to me the increasing problematic situation, the reeducation camps, the collection of DNA samples from a broad cross-section of individuals, the leadership – Communist Party leadership over the region; was a Communist Party leader that was over the Tibetan region and they had experienced a great deal of religious persecution there.

And I’m receiving other reports of people not being allowed to practice Ramadan as they would normally be allowed to do, all of which too makes me question why? What is wrong with allowing people to practice their faith as they have and their people and their families have for generations? And part of it is not why – the need to do this limitation, and there is not a need. And if the idea is, we’re doing this so that there’ll be fewer terrorists, this is counterproductive. You’re producing more terrorists by doing this, and that’s in the academic data now. So I would ask the Chinese Government, look at – your practices are counterproductive if this is about addressing the issues of terrorism.

And then we’re going to keep tracking this and I hope more of the international community shines a light, particularly what’s taken place to the Uighurs, because it seems to be stepping up in a more aggressive and perilous fashion for them.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for doing this. Laurie Mylroie, Kurdistan 24. I have a question about Iraq. Your report says that in many regions, except for the Kurdistan region, minority groups of any religious adherence said they continued to experience violence and harassment from the majority. Would you provide some detail on that statement?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: The – what – the report is what provides that. I – and I don’t have additional ones that I can give to you right here, but there has been that reported a great deal, but I don’t have specific examples to put for you to back that up in front of you now. We can go through the report more and try to get you the actual statements or pieces of factual evidence that state that.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Now, there be – there may be – what happens in some of the report is that we can’t identify the sourcing for it because it puts them in grave danger, and we’ve had people in our office with prior ambassadors that worked with individuals that as soon as they go home or as soon as he leaves, they get arrested or beaten. And so you get a number of people that will tell you what’s taking place, but will not allow you to report them because it puts them in grave danger, and that happens unfortunately a great deal and that’s why some of these are put forward in more broad, generic statements rather than specifics.

QUESTION: Right. That would explain the large number of Christians who live in the – that would explain the large number of Christians living in the Kurdistan region now?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, I think in part – you look at these things of trend lines of population. The gentleman asked the de-population, de-Christianization throughout the Middle East, and you have seen these numbers over a period of 30 decades dwindle substantially in almost every – in maybe every Middle Eastern country. So you look at that and you start asking yourself questions. If they – if de-population happens rapidly, you ask, well, why are so many people of this particular faith leaving? And you can look at the Rohingya situation in Burma, where you’ve just got virtually an entire ethnic group pushed out of the country and – because they’re – because they’re Rohingya but also because they’re Muslim. And now the Kachin, who are primarily Christians, are getting pushed out of the North. So these are certainly indicators of people not being allowed to freely practice their faith --

MODERATOR: Time for one more.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: -- or being safe in practicing their faith.

QUESTION: Thank you. Boris Makarov, Russian news agency TASS. So I was wondering if you have conversations, some contact with Russian officials regarding these concerns which you raised in the most recent report. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I haven’t had any yet with – directly with Russian officials that have been raised in this most recent report. The initial – what we do with the report, we lay it out there, we ask our embassy post in those countries to take the report to their counterparts in the host country’s government, go over the report, note to them that this report is a report. It’s not an analysis. It’s not a judgment call. This is what we have collected. And we lay it out in front of them and then we ask them to start addressing some of these issues. Some governments, I think, try to respond factually, saying, “Well, we agree with this, we don’t agree with that, here is why,” and it starts a conversation.

We hope at the end of the conversation we end up with more religious freedom, that if a country is not protecting that religious freedom, that they will step up their efforts to do that. I heard in the President’s meeting with the president of Nigeria, after this issue came up, the president of Nigeria went home and dispatched troops to some of the more prosecuted – persecuted areas and the situation got better.

So you – that’s what you hope takes place, that there’s individual actions to guarantee this fundamental human right, and that’s what we’ll pursue with the Russians as well.

Thank you all very much. Appreciate it.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much for coming.

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