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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

International Religious Freedom

Samuel D. Brownback
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom 

Washington, DC
February 7, 2019





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

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for waiting. We are well pleased to welcome back to the Foreign Press Center Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Ambassador Brownback. He will make some brief opening remarks, and then we can take some questions. We are on the record, and I will also recognize reporters in New York if they come to the podium.

With that, let me turn it over to Ambassador Brownback.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much. Thank you for joining me here today. There was two things I wanted to talk about. One, a very significant event that happened this week, the United Arab Emirates, where you had the first papal visit ever to a Gulf country in the history of the world. I cite to that because we have been working a great deal particularly with UAE but with a number of countries around the world to push the sort of, not just tolerance, but respect for religions of various types in all places around the world.

As you know, the United States stands strongly for religious freedoms. We believe that you have the right as an individual to practice your faith wherever you are, whoever you are, however you choose to practice that, and whatever you choose to believe; that this is your inherent, God-given right and it’s your dignity that you have as an individual. This then falls upon governments to enforce this right and to see that people can practice it. And it also is incumbent upon governments to be able to showcase a sort of, not just tolerance, but respect and care for one another’s faith.

I love a quote that I attribute to Mother Teresa that she said many years ago that she was – she loved all faiths, because it was a search for God. She was in love with her own. And it’s that sense of being able to allow somebody to practice whatever they see fit and that this was honored and respected on the Arab peninsula this week by the Government of UAE and that there was an outdoor mass that took place. This should be noted. It should be congratulated. It should be recognized around the world of a major move forward by a diverse nation, as far as the number of different people that live in various ethnicities and religions that live in United Arab Emirates. And I was just very pleased to see this.

I do believe we’re starting to see kind of the first chapters globally starting of a nonviolence effort back and forth between faiths, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, where there is a growing sense that we’re in this together, that we need to figure out how to work together. This is something that our office has pushed of all faiths, but also as I narrow in more on the Abrahamic faiths to work together. I spoke in the UAE in November, and I stated at that time we’ve just – we’ve got to – we’ve got to see the violence go down to none between the Abrahamic faiths. And I believe we can, and I believe it’s time for this to move on forward.

I’d also draw your attention, if any of you follow this on a close basis, to a document that was signed by both Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Egypt al-Azhar that was there and talking about really the brotherhood between Christians and Muslims, and also about repudiating violence between the two. It’s really quite a stark and impressive document that they put forward.

The second thing I wanted to bring up was the follow-on, the next ministerial that we’ll be doing, the Global Ministerial on Religious Freedom. It will be here in Washington, D.C., July 16th to 18th in Washington. We did the first one ever last year, and this one coming up this next year, July 16th to 18th. The Secretary announced it in January. We anticipate that it will be even larger than this one this past year. We’ll have more time to plan it. The Secretary was new in the job last year, but wanted this to be his first ministerial, and it was. And we believe it was a very strong, successful ministerial. We had 84 countries participate. We had over 400 individuals from civil society and religious groups that participated, put forward the Potomac Declaration, and had nearly 20 victims of religious persecution that spoke at the event.

One of them, one of his family members spoke this last year, was at the event I was at this morning – Andrew Brunson – who was a religious prisoner in Turkey for two years and has recently been released. His daughter spoke at the event this past year and was lamenting how her father wasn’t going to be able to be at her wedding ceremony, and because he was locked up in prison. They went ahead with a civil wedding ceremony, but the actual wedding, the – I don’t know if I want to call it public or – well, it’s – the religious wedding is going to take place this weekend. And he was there, and the President, President Trump, was asking if he was invited to it or not. And of course, Mr. Brunson said yes, you are invited. I doubt the President will attend, but it was a little interesting vignette that took place. At our ministerial last year he was obviously one of the key people that were – had been in prison.

That ministerial then has launched a series of regional ministerials. We’ll do the first one of those in the UAE, again, in February later this month, and then one in Taiwan in Taipei will take place in the middle of March of a regional summit looking at issues of religious freedom. The one in Taipei is focused on civil society groups, and it’s titled, “A Civil Society Dialogue on Securing Religious Freedom in the Indo-Pacific Region,” and that will be taking place March 11th and 12th in Taipei.

So these are things that we’re doing to push very aggressively and strongly on the issues of religious freedom. We’re going to continue to do that, and we also wanted to celebrate this really milestone event that took place this week with the pope and the Arab Peninsula. With that, I’d be happy to try to take any questions that people might have.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Ambassador. So we’ll follow our normal procedure. If you’d like to be recognized please raise your hand, please wait for the microphone, please – by the way, come up to the front if you want to participate in the Q&A so that we can see you better, and please give your name and outlet when you ask your question. Okay, you first and you second. Can you come forward please, sir? Please. Microphone, please.

QUESTION: Reema Abuhamdiya with Al-Araby TV. You spoke highly of the pope’s visit to United Arab Emirates, but many would say this may has – this may not have the impact that you wish it would on religious freedom in the Arab world, but particularly in United Arab Emirates, in Saudi Arabia. What do you say to that?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I say we celebrate this amazing thing that happened this week, and we congratulate people. And no – there are still difficulties on religious freedom issues, but you can’t but declare this a major even that happened this week, an open-air mass in the Arab Peninsula by the head of the Catholic Church, the pope there, who has never been there before to do something like this in the history of the world. I – you can’t do anything but celebrate that and build on it, is the other piece of it. And I salute the leadership, the crown prince. When I was there in November, they had told me they just heard that this was going to take place -- they had sought it, and it was happening. They were obviously very excited about the prospect of this and the presentation that this is of the world.

And by the way, I want to point out something too. United Arab Emirates has done an excellent job of growing their economy, and they recognize you need to be able to have a diverse population there, including a diverse religious population, and they have to be safe to practice their faith in order to attract the people to be able to be there. So they know that this religious liberty and guaranteeing that practice is something that’s key to growing an economy, which we’ve been saying it’s also key to security as well. But I applaud it, and there may be people that look questioning at it or have further questions, and please keep asking the questions. But you just have to celebrate what happened this week.

MODERATOR: So we’ll go here and then to our colleague in New York.

QUESTION: Ambassador Brownback, my question – my name’s Rafig from CBC TV. My question is about Chinese Uighurs. I wonder what U.S. position is about these Chinese Uighurs, and do you support any programs to bring this persecuted people to United States in support of your NATO allies? And my second question is that now that there’s other minorities in the world, do you – is any quota for – increase of quota of persecuted people to come to get asylum or whatever refugee programs? Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: An increase in the quota?

QUESTION: Right.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Is that what the second piece – okay. Well, first is, I’ve spoken out aggressively, and we did at this ministerial last year, about the declining and the situation in China of religious freedom. It’s gotten worse, not better, and we’ve seen religious persecution of virtually every faith in China. We’re certainly seeing it of the Uighurs and the detention that in some of the public accounts are as many as a million people in detention facilities. We’re seeing a number of churches be destroyed, pulled down, closed. The Falun Gong for years have been just completely attacked there. And the Tibetan Buddhists have had a terrible situation on them for decades towards their faith and the ability to be able to practice their faith.

This is what is happening in China, and it’s gotten worse, not better. The Uighur situation I think is a deplorable situation. Now, for as far as the situation of whether or not we’re going to increase quotas, the United States takes a number of asylees into the United States, and I don’t know of any movement to increase or decrease quotas. There’s no movement really either way on that. We take a number of asylees and we’ll continue to do that. They’re processed on individual basis. Refugee numbers have to have a funding stream from Congress, and then the administration has had a grid to be able to try to investigate and make sure that people that come here are not bent on destruction of this nation at all. And so those reviews are constantly being – taking place, but I don’t know of any change in quotas being discussed.

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

QUESTION: Hi there. James Reinl with Middle East Eye, and thanks so much for the briefing, Ambassador. I wanted to push you a little bit further on the topic you chose to talk about, which is the pope’s visit to the UAE. Obviously it was a milestone, it was a landmark, and you mentioned it as an opportunity to build on the progress that’s been made. And when you look at a country like the UAE, obviously you mentioned there are some problems there. For example, Christians still aren’t allowed to put crosses on their churches and still – conversion is still a crime punishable by death. And of course, across the border in Saudi Arabia, religious – levels of religious freedom are very bad. It’s a tier one country according to the U.S. State Department.

So I’m just wondering, given the Trump administration – you guys are so close to the Saudis, so close to the Emiratis – are there conversations that you’re involved in with them when it comes to religious freedom? And if you were hoping to see some kind of changes, what would be the next steps you’d like to see in these countries when it comes to the expansion of religious freedom?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: That’s a good and fair question, James. We’re in a lot of discussions with UAE and the Saudis. Secretary Pompeo and I were discussing the situation even just this morning. But what I think you have to look at and what we will continue to do is, you build the relationship and you push along the way, and we push the places to address issues.

One of the key ones we’ve been talking about a great deal over some period of time and continue to, but we hope to see some near-term solid progress on, is textbooks and making sure that various faiths in the region, the textbook presentation of that faith is not something that maligns the faith, that it’s something that puts a fair presentation of it or leaves the issue alone altogether. That’s something that we’re having very substantive discussions, and we hope to have some solid presentations on that taking place even this month with some of the countries in that region.

This has been an issue we’ve worked on and talked about for decades, honestly. When I was in the Senate we talked about these textbook issues and have had sometimes progress, and then it falls back, it seems like. What I like about what’s taking place now is we are seeing progress; but you don’t stop at it, you keep pushing on forward. And that would be – that’s one that we really hope to see some solid movement on on a near-term basis.

And this is the way we’re going to keep moving the relationship. We’re going to keep the relationship. We’re going to try to keep the relationship strong. There are problems, there are difficulties, but then we want to say, okay, here’s our next marker that we’re pulling towards to try to address some of these in a specific and step-by-step fashion.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Sir.

QUESTION: Hello. Petros Kasfikis from the Athens News Agency. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has taken a bold step to defend Western values of religious freedom by granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. This has put him in a particularly vulnerable position between the Russian and Turkish pressure. My question is: How do you plan to support the religious freedom rights of the leader of the Orthodox Church, and do you plan to put any pressure to Turkey for allowing the theological school of Halki to reopen its gates?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Give me that last part of your question again, would you?

QUESTION: If you will put any pressure to Turkey to allow the theological school of Halki to reopen its gates, that it has been shut down for so many years.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: One of my – well, actually, my first overseas trip in this job I went to Turkey. And part of it was to go to Andrew Brunson’s trial, but another part was to see the Ecumenical Patriarch, which I did and visited with. And it wasn’t the first time. I’d been there previously in another capacity. But I was there and talking with him, and even that day he was taking a call from the Russian Orthodox Church to discuss this issue, and it was a very lively issue, as it has been a lively issue. This was back in, I think, May last year that we were meeting. We – I was pleased to see his action.

If that’s the action that they choose, we believe it should be honored. I was in the Ukraine last year late, meeting with the religious and governmental officials, and saying the United States position is, you should be free to choose whatever organizational structure you choose on a church or religious body, and once you choose that we support it. Well, this was the – this is the position of what the Ukrainian people and through their government and the church had chosen, and was supported by the ecumenical patriarch, and so we are supportive of that, because it was their – it’s their choice to make, in our estimation.

We will stand with them, we will be supportive in any capacity that we can. We recognize there are other pressures, and there are other steps – there are not other steps, there are other pressure points that people may try to bear, and we’ll be standing for people to make this as a free decision. They should be free to organize in their own faith the way they see fit, and we’ll be supportive of that.

We support the reopening of this school and we have for some period of time. I can’t report to you that there’s progress being made on getting that done at the present time, but we do support that school being opened and continue to support it.

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

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. My name is Prudence Arobani from News Agency of Nigeria. You were in Nigeria a few months ago, and you met with Nigerian officials and also religious leaders. I want to know what issues you discussed and what were the commitment that you extracted from the Nigerian Government and religious leaders towards advancing religious freedom in Nigeria.

And second, the Nigerian general election will be coming next week, and there has been heightened tension in the buildup to the election. The U.S. Government has warned against violence. What role do you think religion will play in next week’s election, and what advice do you have for the political leaders and the religious leaders and also the government? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you. Yes, I was in Nigeria last year for several days, traveling particularly in the middle belt but also in the south of Nigeria. I tracked the situation very closely. The United States Government is strongly concerned that there be free and fair elections, and that they be safe elections – that the factions vote, but not attack each other. And that the government itself that’s in power now do everything they can to protect the people, to make sure that they’re safe. When the president of Nigeria came here to the United States and met with President Trump, one of President Trump’s comments at the press conference afterwards was, you need to protect your own people, you need to protect particularly the Christians who are getting killed. And he said you need to stand up and protect them. That’s the role of any government, is to do that. And so we – our focus is that they be free and fair elections, and that they be safe, and that every effort be made to make sure that people are safe in these elections as they come up.

I want to point out one other thing that’s been – that we’ve been working on in Nigeria that I’m hopeful on a longer-term basis – hopefully it can be useful near term, but I’d – particularly on a longer term basis. We’ve worked to establish a religious roundtable in Nigeria. We have a religious freedom roundtable here, and we’re taking that concept on a global basis and asking all different faiths, or people of no faith at all but that are interested in religious freedom, to join these religious freedom roundtables, to push for religious freedom and respect for all faiths in those countries.

The first one of those has been held in Nigeria now, and it brought together people of various faith persuasions and free thinkers as well, and it was on the topic of, what can we all do to push together for religious freedom, for respect of each other’s religion, and for the safety and security of the people that practice their faith. That’s gotten started; it’s just getting going. But it’s our hope that some of these can take place in many places around the world because of the need, really, to expand religious freedom and the protection for all people of faith wherever they are.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take one here, please.

QUESTION: Hi. Javier from EFE News Services. During his last trip, Pope Francis to the Middle East also spoke for the first time in history about sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church, and he spoke about that just in the Middle East. I would like to know how do you value or you consider that step given by the Catholic Church in this issue?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: It’s not something that we’ve been making comments about out of the Religious Freedom Office. I’m a practicing man of faith, and I practice the Catholic faith, and I think everybody is deeply disturbed by the sex abuse cases that have taken place in what’s – what has happened over decades here. And I believe everybody wants to see the church get to the bottom of this. But it’s not something that the office itself addresses.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to New York, and then we’ll come back here.

QUESTION: Arul Louois from Indo-Asian News Service. A question about American missionary John Allen Chau, who was killed by the isolated Sentinelese tribespeople in the island of Andamans in India. Would you require the Indian Government to take action against Sentinelese tribe, and would you recommend a U.S. sanctions on the Sentinelese?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: For people that – I presume everybody knows about this particular case, but a gentleman went to contact a tribe on one of the islands off in the Indian Ocean off of India, and was killed in the process. The United States Government has not asked or pursued any sort of sanctions that the Indian Government would do against the tribal people in this case. That’s not been something that we have requested or have put forward. It’s a tragic situation and a tragic case of what’s happened, but that’s not something that’s been asked.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go here please.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, and thanks for Foreign Press Center for this good opportunity. Sir Ambassador, my question is: What is your opinion and your view, and what is differences between Iran and Kurdistan region about the minority situation – religion minority situation?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Between Iran and the Kurdish region?

QUESTION: Yes.

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Oh my gosh. Night and day different. Well, I mean if that’s the – Iran is a country of particular concern for us. It is one of the worst violators of religious freedom, and one of the most persecuting environments in the world for religious minorities. If you’re not in the dominant religion, you’re persecuted, and in sometimes in deadly ways. Kurdish region in northern Iraq, which – that’s the – of each region I’m going to speak about that I’ve been to – has been a protecting area of religious minorities and a – no place is perfect, but they have been a refuge for religious minorities for a number of communities, and I’m delighted that they’ve been that. I visited the region last July, and was there and talked with the leadership and a number of the minority communities.

And they – the Kurdish region there has been a refuge. Which by the way, this administration has done a great deal of work to rebuild the minority – religious minority communities in northern Iraq, particularly the Yezidi and Christian communities that were decimated by the ISIS rule in that area. A number of their homes and their religious institutions have been rebuilt. The Vice President has led this effort. It’s been an effort from his heart – the AID, Mark Green, the administrator, and I were both on this trip in July, and there’s private resources as well coming from other places.

I just met with the – some of the Hungarian officials today. They’re helping to fund the rebuilding of both Christian and Yezidi homes, and it’s a new model because in the past, so many times whenever a minority community, religious minority community was persecuted in the Middle East, we just kind of said all right, everybody will emigrate somewhere. They’ll go to Europe, United States, South America, Australia, but they’ll go somewhere else. And so you see all the minority communities declining rapidly in the Middle East.

This time we’re saying, let’s rebuild these areas and let’s have people be able to go home to where they were run out of, and see if really the populations can move back. One of the Catholic bishops I saw a month or so ago, and said about 60 percent of their parishioners had moved back into the Nineveh plains in certain areas, which is great news, that people are moving home. They still have safety and security issues, but that really is what we should aim at I think in a lot of these areas, is for the minority faith communities to be able to go home safely, and be able to live in safety and security.

MODERATOR: Okay, we are entering a second round, and we are coming up on time, so I will take the one in New York and then the one here, and then I think we’ll be concluding. So please go ahead, New York.

QUESTION: Thank you. Prudence Arobani again, News Agency of Nigeria. I did ask the – Nigeria’s election will be coming up next week, and there has been heightened tension. The U.S. Government, the United Kingdom, and European Union have all warned against the violence. I want to ask what role do you think that religion will play in the election, and what advice do you have for the religious leaders, the political leaders, and also the Nigerian Government?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I don’t have advice or thoughts on what role I think religion will play in the elections. That’s for election watchers in Nigeria to be able to comment on something like that. I don’t feel qualified to do that. My advice to religious leaders is to suggest everybody for there to be a calm election, a peaceful election, and no violence in the election. And I would ask all the religious leaders in Nigeria to put that message out: that people get out and vote, but that it be calm and peaceful and no violence. That this is a right that everybody in Nigeria has to vote. It should be exercised, but it shouldn’t be something that people then are threatened with violence or deadly force in various places, and the religious leaders have a role to play and a strong role to play asking for people to do this election peacefully.

The world is watching. Nigeria is an important, incredibly important country, and it’s important throughout the world. It’s certainly a key country in Africa. And what you do on having a peaceful election cycle is an important thing for the progress in Nigeria. And the religious leaders should be just adamant about that this must be peaceful. We do these things peacefully and we showcase that to the world.

MODERATOR: And we’ll finish here, please.

QUESTION: Thank you for taking the question again. Just your thoughts on religious freedoms in general, say 10 years versus now. Is it better? Are you optimistic that it has improved, or are you pessimistic that we’ll still see, for instance, attacks on churches in Egypt, women fleeing Saudi Arabia because they are forced to think a certain way? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: This may seem like a contradictory answer, but I don’t think it is. I think religious freedom has declined over the last 10 years, but I am optimistic and I think it’s on the upswing. I really believe if you can look at this trajectory – and I’ve had some time now to really mull this over and hear a lot of experts, and also hear just a lot of practitioners on the ground – that after the Soviet Union fell and the Berlin Wall came down, that there was sort of this burst of freedom. And that there was just a lot of openness and people moving and going to different places in the world that they hadn’t been for a long period of time, or if ever. And with that there was this big interaction between various faiths that hadn’t interacted that much before. They had interacted some in small, but it was like large.

And that went well for a while. And then I think you really saw political forces try to figure out and see ways that you can manipulate the use of religion for one’s own benefit or for your own country. And then people said, well, this country is for this religion, not for that one, and you’ve seen now these religiously tinged conflicts start coming up in a lot of areas – or not even tinged, like in Burma you’ve got a situation where Muslims are getting kicked out, and they’re – a big part of the reason they’re getting kicked out is they’re Muslims. And the Christians are getting kicked out in the north as well. So it’s – you’ve seen, then, this feature come on the heels of that.

But now what I’ve been observing this past year is a willingness by political leaders and governmental leaders to say this has not been good for us. If we’re going to grow our economy, if we’re going to have security, we need to have religious tolerance and religious freedom guaranteed for everybody. This is the way forward. Not this sort of combating and firing up various religions to oppose each other for a political advantage. So I really think there’s an era coming where people are saying no, the right route forward is religious freedom.

I’ve been saying to a number of people the answer to religious conflict is religious freedom. The answer to religious wars is religious freedom, where you guarantee and secure – and the government guarantees and secures everybody’s right to protect – to practice their faith as they see fit. And it gets good resonance with leaders. Now, it’s got to happen. You’ve got to get it into practice. You have to make it through an election cycle or changes for people to say, yeah, okay, that does work. But I do – I am quite – I am very optimistic. I think religious freedom, the gates of it, are going to fly open around the world because you’ve had this kind of cycle. But I’m very optimistic.

MODERATOR: Thank you. I had called time, but, Ambassador, if you do have a moment, this gentleman didn’t get a question the first time. Can we take it?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, (inaudible). So yesterday, President Trump said --

MODERATOR: Sir, can you say your name and outlet, please?

QUESTION: My name is Maan Habib. I work with the MBN, Middle East Broadcasting Network. So yesterday, President Trump said – announced that they – we are going to defeat ISIS within a week in parts of Syria. So what’s your plan with Iraq to fight the – fight ISIS, the ideological – the idea or ideology of ISIS partnering with the Iraqi Government? Any plan for that?

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, my area is religious freedom, so that’s the lane that I operate in, but our fight to defeat ISIS, I mean, is multifaceted and is a deep commitment. We are going to defeat them. In the area in northern Iraq, we believe a key part of the route forward is democracy so that you have people voting and participating in the society, and also a key piece of the route forward is religious freedom. And as I started out with saying, not just religious tolerance where I will tolerate you even though you’re of another faith. That’s – tolerance can go away pretty fast. Religious respect. I respect your faith. I may not agree with it, but I respect it, and I believe it’s legitimate. It’s a legitimate pursuit of the divine.

And that’s why we push this so much and we’re pushing this thought process as well in Iraq that these need to be guaranteed. And so then you don’t get this seething that happens underneath by people that feel like that they have been disrespected or that their religious freedom has not been allowed and that they have to practice their faith in hiding or they can’t practice their faith or it’s not respected, and then it builds this seething and then people are willing to fight. That’s why we really push, obviously, Iraq to choose its own course on a democratic setting, but also you’ve got to guarantee this right for minorities too. It’s not just a majority right. This is a minority right that has to be protected by the government.

Thank you all.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador, and thank you all for coming.

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