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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom


Special Briefing
Tom Malinowski
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Press Briefing Room
Washington, DC
July 28, 2014

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ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Thanks, everyone. Sorry I’m not the Secretary. (Laughter.) So let me just pick up where the Secretary left off and talk a little bit about the report and some of the highlights, some of which, of course, he already mentioned.

The 2013 International Religious Freedom Report documents how, where and when the universal right to religious freedom was violated or protected in nearly 200 countries around the world, and it reflects the commitment that the Secretary expressed of the United States to advancing religious freedom for every person.

Now, from my point of view, religious freedom is fundamental because it protects our ability to hold and profess and change our most deeply held and personal convictions. Being deeply held and deeply personal, religious beliefs are often strongly contested. But the most significant abuses of religious freedom – those involving large-scale discrimination, persecution, and killing – rarely arise naturally from religious differences among ordinary people. There is usually the additional factor of cynical calculation by political forces seeking to maintain power or exploit religious differences for political ends.

Authoritarian governments, for example, often cannot tolerate independent communities of conscience beyond state control. When I was a kid visiting the country where I was born, Poland, in the 1980s, I remember seeing how threatened the communist authorities were by Catholic communities and churches where every Sunday, sanctuaries were created where people did not fear their government. Buddhist monasteries in Burma played a similar role under military role and they – rule and they were similarly persecuted.

Likewise, today the Chinese Government often severely restricts the ability of unregistered religious or spiritual groups to meet, sometimes banning them outright, as in the case of the Falun Gong, persecuting their defenders, like the human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. We urge Chinese authorities to release Gao as scheduled on August 7th and allow him to return to his family, without harassment or restrictions to his movement.

In Tibet, authorities continue to assert control over Tibetan Buddhist religious practices. As the Secretary mentioned, the Chinese Government also severely restricts the religious practices of Uighur Muslims, including banning fasting during this month of Ramadan for civil servants, teachers, and others. Broadly targeting an entire religious or ethnic community in response to the actions of a few only increases the potential for violent extremism.

In Vietnam, individuals in congregations of multiple faiths reported harassment, detentions, and surveillance throughout the year. That said, the Vietnamese Government is making some progress on religious freedom, registering over 100 church congregations in 2013 and inviting the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit the country.

Tajikistan remained the only country on Earth to ban people under the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. In Turkmenistan, as the Secretary mentioned, people detained for religious reasons suffered beating and torture, and some religious groups were denied places to worship or even the ability to print or import religious materials.

In Sudan, laws are still on the books prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion, contradicting the constitution.

These are all examples of governments that fear people who practice their faith. As I mentioned, abuses of religious freedom also happen when political forces exploit differences between their communities. It’s a very old tactic: Pick a minority religious group – Jews, Bahais, Ahmadiyya, Copts, Shias in some part of the Muslim world, Sunnis in others – cultivate hatred and fear of members of that group, and then use it to build support for your side, or at least distract people from opposing you.

In Burma, if you fear or oppose your country’s forward political progress, you’re probably not going to convince too many people to be against democracy. But you might get somewhere by trying to divide people across religious and racial lines, focusing political discourse on issues like interfaith marriage and religious conversion. And so we’ve seen Burma’s so-called “969” movement, supported by prominent nationalist monks, fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and violence in a country that has had a long tradition of different communities living together.

In Pakistan, violence targeted at members of religious minorities and human rights defenders underscored the government’s failure to provide adequate security. Earlier this year, we were deeply saddened by the murder of Rashid Rehman, a lawyer and human rights defender who, despite threats to his life, was representing a university professor accused of blasphemy. And authorities continue to enforce blasphemy laws and laws designed to marginalize the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

In Iran, the Secretary mentioned the case of Pastor Abedini. We have urged the Iranian Government at every opportunity to press for his release. The government also continued to persecute adherence of the Baha’i faith. Secretary Kerry already described the abuses of ISIL, which are on all of our minds today. We strongly condemn the despicable and cowardly murder of 13 Sunni Muslim clerics in Mosul in June. These brave and honorable men encouraged their followers to reject ISIL and paid the ultimate sacrifice. Since then ISIL has enforced the moratorium that the Secretary mentioned to expel non-Muslims and Shia in Mosul to force them to convert to Islam or to leave the city or face execution.

In Europe, many countries are seeing a rise of nationalist political parties that espouse intolerance, targeting Jews and Muslims along with nonreligious minority groups. In Hungary, the government did not speak out against recent efforts to rehabilitate anti-Semitic World War II figures. We urge the Government of Hungary to engage in constructive dialogue with stakeholders concerned about plans to memorialize the 70th anniversary of the World War II roundup of Jews, Roma, and other minorities by Nazi forces and their Hungarian allies.

In France, we’re concerned by the 11 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents recorded in 2013, as well as by recent physical assaults against members of the Jewish community. We applaud the French Government’s continued efforts to promote interfaith understanding and combat racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim acts.

As we’ve seen in the past and still today, the exploitation of religious difference for political ends can have far-reaching consequences. Religious freedom is fundamentally about preserving that respect for human difference and diversity that is necessary to keep societies and countries from tearing themselves apart, something that is painfully obvious as we look around the world today.

That’s why, as President Obama said at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year: “Freedom of religion matters to our national security.” Fortunately, as the Secretary also mentioned, some of our strongest allies are leaders and communities of faith working to counter religious hatred: inter-faith leaders in Burma campaigning for tolerance, Catholic volunteers in Poland cleaning up anti-Semitic graffiti, students in Malaysia organizing inter-religious marches to visit sacred sites in their neighborhoods. We’ve also seen religious leaders take a stand on behalf of vulnerable groups like LGBT people.

We hope this report will be a resource for people all around the world working to end religious persecution, and that the spotlight were shining on those responsible through the report and our designations today can help to delegitimize and to deter such acts. Thank you. Happy to take a couple of questions.

MODERATOR: Let’s start with Nicole from (inaudible).

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you very much for this report. In the overview, the introduction, it says that 2013 saw the highest level of displacement in recent memory. I’m wondering if you can quantify that for us somehow. And secondly, I think the law that mandates this report also gives the U.S. the power to sanction countries that are engaged in severe abuses. And I’m just wondering, especially given the use of the word “severe” in relation to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of religious minorities, if there’s any possibility that – if the Administration is thinking about using this sanctions power with respect to this report.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Okay, thanks. On the first question, I’m wary of precise quantifying when we’re talking about places where hundreds of thousands of people or millions of people have been displaced and displaced for a variety of reasons. We made that statement at the front of the report because as we look at places like Iraq right now; Syria, of course, over the last couple of years; Central African Republic; it seems to us that in recent memory, we’ve not seen the numbers of people pushed from their homes in conflicts that have a religious or sectarian dimension. So beyond that, I don’t want to throw out numbers because I don’t think I responsibly could do that.

QUESTION: Could you maybe throw out some country – some more country names?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I think probably the greatest in terms of numbers right now is – we’re looking at – in terms of recent displacement, we’d be looking at Syria, Iraq, I mentioned the CAR, and we can probably get back to you with some more.

And as for sanctions, it’s an appropriate tool in some cases. We have employed a variety of sanctions, of course, with respect to a number of countries that have been listed as CPCs in the past. The test for me for us is what’s going to be effective in any particular case, and that’s a case-by-case judgment.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: We’ll go to Said. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you, Marie. Thank you, sir. I have a quick question: How do you raise issues like blasphemy laws and the lack for these freedoms with countries like your allies – like Saudi Arabia, some of the other Arab countries, and so on? How do you raise those? Just in statements like this? Or do you say you must do this or we will do this? And then I have a quick follow-up.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Okay. Well, we raise it in all kinds of ways. Of course, we raise it – we raise it publicly. The report pulls absolutely no punches on blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Saudi, and a number of other countries around the world. We’ve absolutely raised blasphemy laws, including with Pakistan, in numerous diplomatic meetings in private. We’ve asked countries that have such laws, which we consistently oppose – we believe that it is never okay to punish people for professing changing or talking to others about their religious beliefs, and we’ve certainly raised that with officials of numerous countries around the world.

QUESTION: Now some of the countries that have very tight – in terms of they’re not tolerant, let’s say, of religious freedom, they even are less tolerant for those who want to practice freedom from religion, as a matter of fact. I mean, how do you raise these issue, I mean, in many of the countries, even some of your liberal allies or supposedly liberal allies, as in Jordan or Lebanon or others, for people to congregate and organize as atheists?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Freedom of conscience is freedom of conscience, and it applies to the freedom not to believe in a particular faith or in any faith.

MS. HARF: Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. One of the country listed as CPC during this U.S. report as well as last previous years is China. Last year, the U.S. and China has a Human Right Dialogue in Kunming last July. I wonder if there is any timetable for this year’s dialogue, and what is the status of that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Well, we just had a human rights dialogue in the Security and Economic Dialogue with China. In other words, we don’t need to have a formal dialogue that is labeled a human rights dialogue in order to raise at the highest level with the Chinese authorities our concerns about human rights. So Secretary Kerry and other officials raised a number of these issues at the S&ED.

Subsequently, we had a counterterrorism dialogue here in Washington at which we raised repeatedly the issue of persecution of Uighurs in China’s far west and the impact that that has on the shared interest that we have with China on fighting extremism and violence. So we don’t have a date right now for the next formal human rights dialogue. We’d like to have one, but it doesn’t stop us from raising the issue.

QUESTION: In this year’s report, there is concern regarding a religious structure being demolished without consultation with the church leaders. And just as State Department’s releasing this report, we heard from China there’s churches such as – the cross sign above the church was demolished without consultation agreed by the teacher – by a leader, church leaders. Is it – is this a worrying trend? Do you have any comments on this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Well, there have been cases like that, and we’re aware of the most recent one that you just mentioned and absolutely are concerned about it. People should have a right to express their religious beliefs, and that’s a value that we will continue to stand up for, even in cases of countries like China, where we have broad and complex relationships.

QUESTION: One final question: In August 2011, the State Department extended sanctions, existing sanctions under IRFA, related to restrictions on exports of crime control and detection instruments. Could you please elaborate on that, what kind of sanctions --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Let us get back to you on that one.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: We’ll do two more, so let’s keep them short here. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So as Christians are persecuted in Iraq and much of the Middle East, there’s one region in Iraq, Kurdistan, which has welcomed the Christians. Does your report have anything to say about the state of religious freedom in the Kurdistan region of Iraq?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yes, and I refer you to the report on specifics on Kurdistan. I would say that with the immediate crisis of Mosul and other communities that are being cleansed by ISIL, one of the steps that we’ve taken is to talk to the authorities in the Kurdish region to encourage them to accept people who, unfortunately, have had to flee for their lives, and we’re very pleased that they are, in fact, doing so.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: I have a question for Rabbi Saperstein.

MS. HARF: He’s not answering questions today, because he’s still a nominee, but I’m sure there will be time later.

Let’s do one behind you, with the glasses. There’s some visitors (inaudible).

QUESTION: Yeah. Pastor Abedini – I was wondering if you could talk about what the Secretary has done when he’s at the table with Iran to intervene for this American citizen.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I can say that we have, on numerous occasions in the context of the talks, around the talks, urged the Government of Iran to release him.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary intervened himself?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: I believe the Secretary has raised his case, yes.

MS. HARF: Great. We’ll do one more. I mean it this time, last one.

QUESTION: Yes, please. In the recent year, it is obvious that the central governments are not playing a role in controlling what’s going on within what happening now in Iraq, what happened before in Syria, and more or less – and in Egypt, some cases. How do you handle this issue? Because the report is made that – as if we are talking about government. And how do you handle this new trend of Middle East in dealing – well, for example, what the Islamists or the jihadists are dealing with Christians in dislocating or locating them in another place?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Yeah. Well, in many cases we’re dealing with non-state actors like ISIL and related groups in Iraq and Syria. And the report is very clear in making those distinctions. At the same time, governments do have greater responsibilities. And often governments, through repressive practices, create conditions that enable these non-state groups to arise and to grow and to flourish. And so ultimately, we do – in this area, as in all human rights issues, we do hold governments to a high degree of responsibility. Thank you.

MS. HARF: Great. Thank you all. And Jen will be out soon to brief. So take a quick break and then come back. And thanks for coming today, guys.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY MALINOWSKI: Thank you, everyone.



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