• BACKGROUND:  Around the world, there are countless individuals wrongly imprisoned on account of exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief.  Unfortunately, these individuals are also confined in detention facilities that are often unsanitary, overcrowded, and conducive to the spread of COVID-19.  With increasing infection rates, and death tallies growing, there could not be a more urgent time to press for the promotion and protection of religious freedom abroad.  In light of this, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback discusses the need for release of religious prisoners around the world.  


MODERATOR:  My name is Melissa Waheibi and I’m the moderator for today’s event.  Welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s videoconference briefing with Ambassador Brownback.  First, some process items before we begin the briefing.  We’ll now mute all your microphones.  Please keep your microphone muted until you’re called on to ask a question.  If you have technical problems during the briefing, you can use the chat feature and we’ll try to assist you during that time.  And if your Zoom session fails, simply just reconnect and rejoin us when you can make that connection.  And as a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record. 

Now I’m honored to introduce our briefer today.  Ambassador Sam Brownback was sworn in as Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom on February 1st, 2018.  Previously he served as Governor of Kansas, as U.S. Senator, and in the House of Representatives from Kansas.  While a member of the Senate, he worked actively on the issue of religious freedom in multiple countries and was a key sponsor of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.  Today he’ll speak about the need for release of religious prisoners around the world, especially in light of COVID-19.  So the ambassador will provide opening remarks and then I will moderate that time of Q&A.   

So let’s begin our briefing.  Sir, you may open with your opening remarks. 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thanks, Melissa.  I appreciate it.  Delighted to have this chance to do this and appreciate the chance that you’re willing to tune into this as well.  At the outset I’d like to say that the key point here I’d like to make is that we are seeing some countries release religious prisoners because of the COVID-19 crisis, because of the public health concern, because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s the right thing for their country not to keep people, religious prisoners, in prison in the first place.  They shouldn’t be there in the first place, but also and on top of that, in light of this crisis, this is a key time that they should allow these people out who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place, and shouldn’t be then subjected to this worse environment for the spread of the virus within a crowded prison, unsanitary situation. 

It’s our hope that a number of countries will look at this and say, this is something we don’t want to expose these people to, that we want to let them out.  It is good for our own country’s public health, and that we’ll see more of these religious prisoners being released in the coming days. 

Now, to date, we have seen some released already, and I’d just like to go down through a few of these countries that we’ve seen prisoner releases from, including in several of these cases religious prisoners released.  We’ve seen countries including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland, Syria, and Tunisia all have some prisoner release programs taking place, and in a number of these cases having some religious prisoners that are being released amongst the entire group that’s being released.  And we hope to see more of these taking place as well as we move forward. 

Just going down a few of these in particular, in Cuba we’ve seen the release of Adiya Rigal.  She was in prison for homeschooling their children.  Her husband has continued to be in prison, but she has been released. 

In Iran, something like 100,000 prisoners have been furloughed, and 10,000 prisoners pardoned.  That has taken place.  We’ve seen some, at least seven Christian prisoners have been released – that’s either furloughed or pardoned – and at least ten Christian prisoners, though, do remain in prison.  That is taking place.  One in note, Ramiel Bet-Tamraz, a Christian and brother of Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, and son of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, was released. 

In Russia, we have seen a release of a Jehovah Witness that was in pretrial detention, and in Azerbaijan we’ve seen a pardon release of 176 prisoners as a preventive health measure.  Those are some of the key places. 

Now, that’s on the positive side of the ledger.  On the negative side of the ledger, unfortunately we continue to see in a number of these countries religious prisoners continuing to be held in spite of the COVID crisis.  Actually, even really, there is a number of individuals – numbers that we aren’t certain of the total number – around the world just continue to languish in detention facilities and are seeking simply to practice their faith in peace.  But that’s what they’re being detained for, is their minority religion, or one that is out of favor with the government, and they’re in prison, and they continue to be in spite of the COVID-19 crisis.  

So today, we call on governments, including those in China, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Yemen, and others alike, to release those individuals who are in detention for their religious beliefs and practices, and who remain there.  It’s to be a key time, an important time, and the right time for these individuals to be released.  They are simply wanting to practice their faith peacefully, and they shouldn’t be held in these inhumane circumstances where they can easily catch this virus and deteriorate while in prison.  

So that’s really our message.  This is something we’ve also taken up with the International Religious Freedom Alliance that was formed this February by Secretary Pompeo.  Twenty-nine countries are a part of that International Religious Freedom Alliance, and a number are pushing this same point, that these individuals shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place, but certainly should be released now, given the environment that we have.  And we call on these governments to do this. 

Just making a couple of points here on individual countries.  Azerbaijan, we acknowledge and applaud their release of several hundred religious prisoners – a hundred prisoners, I should say, in total.  But we call on them to immediately release all of those incarcerated for exercising their fundamental freedoms, including religious prisoners. 

China continues to have in prison a number of Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims, house church Christians, Falun Gong members that continue to be arbitrarily detained.  In particular, I want to call out the name of Pastor Wang Yi, the leader of the Early Rain Covenant Church, that was sentenced in December to nine years in prison.   

In Eritrea, more than 40 religious prisoners of conscience are currently in prison, including Jehovah’s Witnesses there.  

In Iran, while the regime has furloughed and released a number of countries*, there continues to be a refusal to release many of the Iranian Christians and other religious minorities are being held just for exercising their faith. 

In Pakistan, more than 29 individuals charged under the anti-blasphemy laws face execution.  We continue to call for their release. 

In Russia, credible sources report that there are over 250 individuals in prison or under house arrest on the basis of their religious affiliation.  Thirty-two Jehovah Witnesses are in prison or pretrial detention.  We did have one released.  We ask that all of them be released, and they should be. 

Saudi Arabia continues to hold Raif Badawi, who is a blogger that’s been put in jail for his faith. 

In Tajikistan, six people, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and a Christian, remain in prison on account of their faith. 

Turkmenistan, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses are in prison. 

Vietnam, at least 128 prisoners of conscience are currently detained, including minority religious groups and certainly Christians, Mennonite, Protestants, Hoa Hao Buddhists, and Cao Dai are being held, and the Hoa Hao Buddhist lawyer Nguyen Bac Truyen and Protestant pastor Nguyen Trong Ton were sentenced to 11 and 12 years each, and we ask that they be released. 

We call on the Houthis in Yemen to follow through on their March 25th announcement to release all Baha’i political prisoners of conscience in their custody. 

That’s a pretty lengthy list, but I wanted to get those specifics out there, applaud the countries that have released prisoners of conscience, and ask that further prisoners of conscience be released in this crisis season.  With that, I’d be happy to open up and take any questions. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, sir.  Now we’ll open this time up for questions.  We’ll first hear from those participating via the Zoom app and then I’ll turn to those who’ve called in.  So for those of you joining us via Zoom, please click on the raised hand button at the bottom of the participant list or indicate you have a question via the chat feature at the bottom of your screen to ask a question and then I will call on you.  When called on, please state your full name and organization. 

So our first question is from Alex.  Alex, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Yes.  Thank you, Ambassador, for being here this morning and for briefing us.  Alex Raufoglu of Turan News Agency from Azerbaijan.  I really appreciate your statement and also your tweets recently on Azerbaijan.  You mentioned that 176 prisoners in general were released.  Only two of them were religious prisoners to my best knowledge, and so I wonder if you anticipate that the government will release additional religious prisoners, of which the majority are MUM – Muslim Unity Movement – members who have already faced difficult conditions and torture, reportedly.  And why is trust between religious groups and their governments helpful in times like this?  Thank you very much. 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yes, thanks, Alex.  First, as I noted, I applauded Azerbaijan for releasing a number of their prisoners and some of the political and religious prisoners that they released.  We are asking and I anticipate they will do more as we continue to point these cases out and the importance of doing this and the fact, too, that these governments don’t want these people to die in prison because of the COVID virus when they’re there for religious or political purposes.  You don’t want that blood on your hands, and that’s why we continue to ask them to do that. 

As far as the second part of your question, I’m not – as far as I understand what the question is about, it’s cooperation and working by the governments and religious groups, and we’re finding that taking place in some places.  A number of the religious groups have been very supportive of the social distancing effort and not holding services like Easter services for the first time ever in the history of some of these institutions.  They’re doing that to help out with the containment and to push back against the spread of this terrible, terrible virus. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have opportunity now for other questions.  Again, if you do have a question, just click on that raised hand feature or use your chat function. 

Okay, we have a question from Ben.  Ben, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Yes, hi.  Thank you, Ambassador Brownback, for doing this briefing.  In your opening remarks you mentioned you’re calling out China to do more and you mentioned the Uighurs.  I’m wondering – at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed the U.S., President Trump, Secretary Pompeo had pretty harsh language for the Chinese and now it seems to be sort of more cooperative, the relationship.  I’m wondering if there’s been any – have you reached out specifically to Chinese officials to try and get Uighurs in Xinjiang released due to the COVID crisis? 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I have reached out through the press.  I have not reached out directly to individuals.  We put out broad statements, as have a number of different countries, particularly those in the International Religious Freedom Alliance have put out statements calling for this.  And I think what you’re seeing is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, obviously, and all the countries of the world are trying to cooperate to the degree they can to deal with this threat facing all of humanity on the planet.  So we’re trying to cooperate with all of these countries.  At the same time, we’re asking that these nations really step up and address this situation and – of religious prisoners in their own nation. 

So I think we can do both and need to do both at the same time: cooperate, but yet still push that these religious prisoners all over the world, including those in China, would be released. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question is from VOA.  And as a reminder to journalists to please state your full name and organization before your question. 

Go ahead. 

QUESTION:  This is Young-gyo Kim from Voice of America.  I was wondering – Ambassador, I was wondering how you perceive the religious situation of the North Korean religious prisoners right now. 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  I think that my perception is they haven’t changed in North Korea, and they continue to be in dire circumstances.  And a lot of times the reporting we have received is that religious prisoners in North Korea receive the harshest treatment, and that would certainly include very crowded, difficult, unsanitary prison environments, and we have not received any reports of that being changed in the COVID-19 crisis time. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I also want to extend the invite for questioners who have called in via the phone, and if you have a question and you have dialed in instead of using the Zoom app, you can press *6 and that will open up your line in order to ask the question.  I’ll also call on you once you do that. 

So we have a – I believe we have an open line from a number ending in 8449.  Go ahead.  Please introduce yourself and ask your question. 

QUESTION:  Hi, this is Reena Bhardwaj from ANI.  Thank you, Ambassador, for doing this briefing, firstly.  We know that vulnerable communities within Pakistan are fighting hunger to keep their families safe and healthy.  However, food is denied because of one’s faith.  Where does the United States stand on this and has – have you stepped up efforts talking to the Imran Khan government?   

My second question, again staying in the South Asia region:  About the attack in the Sikh temple in Kabul, Sikh minorities do not seem safe in Afghanistan anymore.  They’re seeking asylum in India and other countries.  How is the United States committed to bringing this persecuted group to safety?  What steps is the administration taking? 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Reena, let me make sure – I didn’t hear quite all of your first part of your question.  Was it about food to the religious minorities in Pakistan? 

QUESTION:  That’s right, sir, the religious minorities including Hindus and Christians. 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yeah.  We have been calling on governments all over the world to allow religious minorities, certainly the majority population but also the religious minority populations, to be able to get access to basic public health, which certainly includes food.  So we call on the Pakistani Government to make sure that religious minorities are being able to eat, to have water, to have basic medical needs.  In some places and in some countries, we’ve seen where there has been difficulty for religious minorities to get access to basic, basic needs, and this is not the time to deny that.  We have seen even in some countries where governments have stepped up their efforts to persecute religious minorities in this difficult season, and we push back against that and we think that is a horrible thing to do in this crisis time. 

Regarding the Sikh community in Afghanistan, it was a horrible attack that took place there in that nation towards the Sikh community.  I met last week with a number of members of the Sikh community in the United States about trying to help out with the resolution of the crisis for the Sikhs in Afghanistan.  Those discussions are ongoing.  I think they’re ongoing with a number of branches within the U.S. Government.  I don’t know of any decisions that have been reached at this time, but it is a dire situation for the Sikhs in Afghanistan, and many of them, if not the entire community, seeks to leave Afghanistan to get to a safer place for their community after these attacks have taken place.  We will continue to work with them, but I don’t have any announcements at this time of what actions U.S. Government may take. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have another dial-in from Manik.  Manik, please state your name and organization, then ask your question. 

QUESTION:  Yeah.  I am a syndicated journalist, and I had the privilege to meet Ambassador Brownback in New York some months back.  However, coming back to the Uighur question, how does the U.S. Government see the current situation in Xinjiang where the Uighur community is being rounded up and completely isolated?  They are – in some cases I’ve read they are being denied food and water, and they have been forced to shave their beards, the usual characteristics of Chinese persecution.  What action can the U.S. Government take on this besides making representations?  Thank you. 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Yes, thank you.  Yesterday, I co-hosted a religious freedom roundtable of activists from primarily across the United States, but from some places all over the world.  We do this regular religious freedom roundtable where I and Greg Mitchell, that hosts this jointly, co-hosted and we did one yesterday, and the issue of the Uighurs came up in a situation that they continue to face in China.  It – the United States continues to put forward objections how they’re being treated, asking that they be treated as a normal citizen in China with rights under the constitution in China to practice their religious beliefs peacefully.  That continues to be denied the Uighur population.  And we continue to point this out, and have in multiple venues, and will continue to press on this until the Uighurs and everybody for that matter in China is allowed to practice their constitutional rights, their UN Declaration of Human Rights that they have, and that includes religious freedom. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I’m going to allow a little more time for questions.  Again, for those on the app, just click on the raised hand feature or use your chat function.  For those of you on the phone, if you have another question or a follow-up, simply press *6 to open your line back up, and then I’ll see you and call on you, but we’ll give it just a few more moments. 

Manik, I see you’ve reopened your line.  Do you have a follow-up question? 

QUESTION:  Yes.  Thank you so much for your generosity.  Just a follow-up on the Uighur question.  As you know, China was president of the Security Council in the month of March, and it very cleverly avoided two important issues.  One was the issue of the Uighurs, and secondly, more importantly, the COVID-19.  Now that the U.S. has openly said that China is responsible for the proliferation of COVID-19 in many Western countries, will the U.S. take up this issue within the parameters of the Security Council or on an international basis against China? 

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  That’s outside of my portfolio, so I can’t answer that issue.  Obviously, the focus today is on religious prisoners and getting them released in this environment, but I can’t comment on what steps the United States Government will take on pressing China regarding the COVID-19 virus. 

Well, I want to thank everybody for joining us today.  I appreciate your listening in.  I hope we can get this messaging out.  We have seen some progress of religious prisoners being released in this environment.  We’re hoping for much more.  We’re praying for all of them to be released so that they wouldn’t be subject to these inhumane circumstances simply for peacefully practicing their faith.   

Thank you for your interest.  Appreciate it very much.  God bless you all. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Thank you, sir.  Thank you for joining us.  And again, thank you all for joining in.  This briefing will be transcribed.  I’ll share that transcript as soon as it’s available.  And on that note, I just wish everyone good health and a good day.  And thank you again, Ambassador.  

AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK:  Thank you, Melissa. 

MODERATOR:  Have a good day. 

U.S. Department of State

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