Good afternoon, everybody. Congratulations to all our awardees.

Ambassador Hussain: thank you for your introduction. Thank you for your leadership – and thanks to your entire team for everything they’ve done. I’m so grateful that you’ve invited me to honor so many extraordinary champions of religious freedom.

Seventy-five years ago, in adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world asserted in one voice that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”

Twenty-five years ago, when the International Religious Freedom Act became the law of our land, that same concept became, in the words of President Clinton, “a central element of U.S. foreign policy.”

And today, that ideal still guides us. Not just because it’s right and fair and just. But because we know what happens when religious freedom is undermined and we know what’s possible when it is upheld.

Indeed, when religious persecution is ascendant, communities are less stable. Economies see less opportunity. Citizens see less possibility, and countries endure more violence and fear.

Yet when religious freedom is respected, nations are more open, more prosperous, more inclusive, more likely to deliver for their people, more capable of responding to global challenges, and more secure.

This matters to everyone, whether you are a person of faith or not. This right to believe, practice, and worship as you wish without risk of persecution or discrimination – this is tied to every other right that we hold dear: the freedom to speak, to participate, to assemble.

There’s a reason that America’s founders prohibited the establishment of a religion and made the exercise of religious practice our first freedom in the Bill of Rights.

Religious freedom is fundamental to any healthy democracy. It’s a way to give people ownership over their lives, families, and choices. A way to keep citizens invested in open and free and safe societies – in the notion that, by our votes or by our daily decisions, we all deserve the right to determine our own destiny.

So this work is vital to our democracy at home and our promotion of democracy across the globe. It is vital to our diplomacy and to our push for human rights. Most of all, it is critical to national and global security.

That’s why we, at the State Department, focus on this issue so intently. And it’s why the International Religious Freedom Act is so essential.

The fact is, this legislation did more than change a few lines in the U.S. code.

This measure initiated a paradigm shift in how we talk about, how we pursue, and how we advance religious freedom beyond our borders.

It has equipped us with the tools to promote accountability for violators of religious freedom and call out offenses of the planet’s most repressive regimes.

And it has given us the capabilities to effect real change – to not only shine a light on dark abuses of human dignity, but make tangible improvements around the world.

Today, in part thanks to our team’s leadership – and especially under the leadership of the Ambassador and his office – some countries that once ignored religious freedom have improved school curricula and introduced religious tolerance into the public discourse.

Several European states have abolished longstanding blasphemy laws. And we have seen the release of hundreds of religious prisoners of conscience.

Yet even with these steps forward – and many more – we have no illusions here: neither the passage of this law nor the last quarter-century of this work have ended threats to religious freedom.

Too many countries, including Russia, Iran, China, and Nicaragua, ignore or deny their role in such abuses. Others have moved in the direction of religious nationalism and restrictions for religious minority groups. Still others have made progress only to backslide due to conflict, corruption, and anti-democratic forces. And according to recent studies, religiously unaffiliated people have faced rising hostility too.

So there’s a lot on our plate and a long road ahead. But we should have, well, faith in our mandate and our mission.

We should keep building on our work in recent years to hold nefarious actors accountable when they take religious freedom violations to brutal extremes: whether that’s in the aftermath of the ISIS genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims; or in response to the Burmese military’s genocide and ethnic cleaning against the Rohingya; or in the face of China’s horrific crimes targeting Uyghurs and ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.

What we do makes a difference. But none of it is done by the United States alone.

Our commitment to religious freedom is shared by partners in every region – as is our determination to protect this right.

To that end, many allies and partners have established positions akin to our Ambassador-at-Large. The United Nations has a Special Rapporteur specifically focused on freedom of religion or belief. And the membership of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance is growing, as is the body bringing parliamentarians and legislators together around this challenge.

This represents the scaffolding of our effort.

But perhaps more important than anything else are the civil society organizations, the groups and individuals, who do the legwork of religious freedom at the ground level – the ones who know how to apply our broad principles to their unique social, cultural, and religious settings, often at great risk to their personal safety.

People like those we honor today – each of them portraits of courage and conviction, service and sacrifice, valor and faith.

There’s Tali Nates, who teaches youth to stand up to antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all forms of “othering.”

There’s Mirza Dinnayi, a Yezidi human rights defender who saved women and children from ISIS atrocities.

There’s Father Gintaras Sungaila and the Group of Nine Orthodox Clergy in Lithuania, who were stripped of their calling and their livelihoods for their opposition to Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine.

There’s Farid Ahmed, who was widowed in the 2019 Christchurch Mosque attacks then started to spread a message of peace and forgiveness in the aftermath.

There’s Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, who has documented the repression of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church and religious communities.

There’s Kola Alapinni, a lawyer who has challenged Nigeria’s blasphemy laws. And Peter Jacob, who has spent more than 35 years fighting for the rights of Pakistan’s marginalized religious minorities. And Lhadon Tethong, who uses technology to support Tibetans and others facing Chinese repression.

These stunning leaders know better than anyone that the course before us is long and winding.

As President Biden said in a proclamation on Religious Freedom Day just this week, “the work of protecting religious freedom is never finished.”

If these honorees teach us anything, it’s that the campaign for religious freedom speaks to something more fundamental than any political issue or diplomatic initiative.

It’s about who we are – it’s about who we are as human beings. How we wish to be treated. What kind of society we hope to inhabit. Whether the world our children and grandchildren inherit will be more open, just, secure, and free.

That is the mission of everything we strive to do in American foreign policy. And no matter how hard the path ahead, that cause is always worth fighting for.

Thank you for leading this fight for religious freedom, and congratulations again to our awardees.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future