NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: All right. Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to the Foreign Press Center in New York. I’m the new director here, Liz Detmeister. It’s our pleasure today to present this briefing discussing the importance of safeguarding religious freedom. Before I introduce our speaker, I’d like to take a moment to ask you to silence your cell phones.
Today’s briefing is on the record and will be livestreamed and transcribed. Our speakers will make some introductory remarks and then you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions at the end. When you’re offered the microphone, as a courtesy to our briefers, please indicate your name and news outlet.
The first speaker today is Sam Brownback, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the U.S. Department of State. And here today in the front row we’re welcoming several survivors of religious persecution. Thank you very much, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much, appreciate that. I want to give you a brief overview of what took place, if you weren’t watching on it, and then I want to ask these survivors to be coming up and to make a few brief comments, each of them on their situation.
The United States hosted the first-ever event at the UN around the topic of religious freedom. To our knowledge, and in searching the records, this has not been done at a General Assembly ever before. The United States did this because we think it’s a critical topic at a critical time. Religious freedom is going down around the world, not increasing. Religious persecution is increasing. Pew Charitable Trusts has it at nearly 80 – over 80 percent of the world’s population lives in a religiously restricted environment, and that restriction can go from fairly minor items all the way to death penalty for being a minority faith. And that is going on in the world today. Level of Christian persecution in particular is at an all-time high. It’s never been higher than what it is today.
The Secretary of State spoke about an alliance that we are pushing. The United States is pushing an International Religious Freedom Alliance. This is an alliance of likeminded nations to push on the topic of religious freedom, to stand up against religious persecution around the world in its various varieties. And we’ve been meeting and talking with nations, and the Secretary put forward a plea there today to ask likeminded nations to come join us. And we believe we’ll be able to put together a strong alliance to push for religious freedom.
This is not a new topic. It is in the UN Charter Declaration of Human Rights. Religious freedom is there. It’s not new to the United States. This is in our founding documents. It’s our First Amendment. But we find as this right erodes and shrinks around the world, generally other rights erode too, and we believe that as this right will expand around the world, other rights will expand as well. So we are serious about this. We’re serious about the alliance that we put forward here. We hope to announce some initial members of that coming up in the near future of who would join in with this alliance. And we really believe that this is the turning point in the battle.
Secretary Guterres made very strong comments in favor of religious freedom and against persecution. We’re delighted to have him participating in this event as well. And we look forward to his and other UN groups’ support for this push that’s in the UN founding documents.
With that, I want to bring up, to start with, Meriam Ibrahim, and just – I’m going to ask different individuals – we got to get us a mike where they could stand up and speak briefly. Meriam is a Sudanese Christian that was imprisoned for her faith and had the death penalty put on her and would have been executed but for the fact that she was pregnant at the time, and the world community engaged and she was able to get out and get free. It should never have happened to her in the first place, but it did, and she’s here to support this cause. Meriam, you want to stand up and I think you can – you want to – you can come up here or you can stand up there, but you need to turn around, if you would, so that they can get a video of you.
MS IBRAHIM: Yeah. Thank you, Ambassador Brownback. I’m so grateful for this opportunity. And this is very brave steps for us to be here, and this issue of freedom of religion to be brought up at the UN, it’s never happened before. And we need more attentions, need more work, and we appreciate the U.S. effort on that.
When a mother sentenced to death or imprisoned for 10 years, taken away from her family, her husband, pastor imprisoned or killed because he’s running (inaudible) or he’s preaching the word of God, it’s something that we shouldn’t be silent about it. We should speak up. We should work. We should all come together, because when it’s happening in any country, it’s affected the other countries. Like when it’s happening in Sudan or it’s happening in Egypt, we all get affected, as a Christian, Muslim, or Jewish – all the religion. So we appreciate the U.S. effort on that.
We’re hoping for more work to be done, and at this time when the all world leader around here at the UN, so we call them, every member at the UN, at the United Nations, and the international human rights law, they should respect the freedom of religion hopefully for everyone, all the cities and the countries. And thank you, Mr. Brownback.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Next will be Nyima Lhamo. Her uncle was one of the most highly revered reincarnated lamas and a very prominent Tibetan prisoner who died in a Chinese prison, and she has since been an outstanding advocate for the Tibetan people and Tibetan Buddhism.
Do you want to come up here? Come on up.
MS LHAMO: (Via interpreter) I express my deep gratitude to Ambassador Brownback and the United States administration for this opportunity of taking up the religious freedom issue here at the United Nations and for my participation here.
As Ambassador Brownback mentioned, I’m the niece of a Tibetan Buddhist master Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. On account of the persecution he faced and on account of the persecution my family faced in Tibet, I had to eventually escape to the United States.
One thing that I’ve learned after coming to the West and particularly after attending today’s session in the United Nations is that suffering is not just our families alone or my communities alone; they’re suffering all over the world, and religious freedom is being violated all over the world. And therefore, today I’ve learned that it’s very important for everybody in the international community to come together. And so the United States has created this very good opportunity space for the international community to focus on the religious freedom, of the issue, and we need to be united on this issue.
And so that is basically my first point, that we are not all here to speak about ourselves, but – or speak about our situation alone, but to look at what the international community can together do on the issue of religious freedom.
So in the case (inaudible) more than hundred Tibetans have self-immolated solely because they haven’t been given that opportunity, that freedom, that right that is the fundamental rights of all human beings. And in the case of the Tibetans, it’s particularly the religious freedom of the Tibetan people that have been violated. And that has led to the Chinese authorities creating situation where even something like the internet, which is taken for granted to here in the West (inaudible) afford it or being given to the people there.
For the Tibetan people, a very concrete symbol of religious freedom would be how the Chinese authorities behave or act towards his holiness, the Dalai Lama. The more than 100 Tibetans have self-immolated have done so primarily because they have known they wanted his holiness, the Dalai Lama, to have the opportunity to return to Tibet. But they don’t have that opportunity. So therefore for us, if we have to have a benchmark for religious freedom of the Tibetan people, it would be for the possibility and ability of his holiness, the Dalai Lama, to be able to go back to Tibet and to practice his religion there.
I’m sorry I became a little bit emotional, but this is what we have learned for the last so many years. And therefore with this sort of added, I would like to conclude by again thanking you, Ambassador Brownback, and the administration here for organizing this opportunity. And I would like everybody to be united in the struggle for religious freedom.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much. Next is Irene Weiss. Irene’s a survivor of the Holocaust, and I think can speak – her life speak louder than words about what happens if you don’t address the issue of protecting your religious minorities. Irene.
MS WEISS: Thank you. Thank you for listening to a little bit of my history. When I was 13 years old, my family was taken out of our home and delivered to Auschwitz where everybody was murdered upon arrival. I had one sister who survived. I have enormous empathy for the people here today who are suffering. After so many years of the Holocaust, I thought there would never be discrimination against religion and people who are different. But here we are again.
What – this event is extremely important for the people here because their stories are being heard. And hopefully things will get better for them because of the publicity that this will provide. One of our problems was in my time in Auschwitz that we felt that we were abandoned, and for years the killing went on, and nobody came to help us. So I’m very grateful for the event today because I hope that this new generation of suffering people are not forgotten and will not be forgotten. So thank you for this event very much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you, Irene. She’s been an inspiration to many of us. Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, her father was convicted in Iran. Daughter of a Christian pastor there, and she was one that spoke at the event here with the secretary-general and the President. Dabrina. I think these mikes you can use.
MS BET-TAMRAZ: This event today gives a voice to many people who don’t have a voice, who are today imprisoned, are waiting for their trials, house arrest of the families who are afraid to speak out. What you are doing here gives a voice to many.
In Iran, Christians, alongside other minorities, religious minorities, are being denied of their freedom of religious faith. My father is appealing a 10-years prison sentence. My brother is appealing four months for just going on a picnic. My mother is appealing a 5-years prison sentence. So far, until this very day, no Christians’ sentences has been dropped by the supreme court. It is foreseen that the lawyers have small hopes – and if I say small hopes, I’m being very positive – for my family’s sentences to be dropped. There are actually no hopes. There are over 200 Christians since only two years that we know of today serving lengthy prison sentences or awaiting their trials.
Churches are being closed down. Farsi-speaking people – Farsi-speaking Christians are not allowed to go to churches. Any church that has conducted ever a Farsi service are shut down, including our church and our sister churches. The only church that are able to function today are Catholic or Orthodox, who are also very much restricted.
Christian children are denied of school, of attending to university. Boys cannot go to the army, cannot get a driving license. Either you have to convert to Islam, or you are denied of a very small things such as driving your car. And the Christian persecution, as well as the persecution for Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, Sufis is increasingly in Iran. And if you don’t speak about it, if you don’t publicize this news, Iran will do whatever it wants. This is why it’s so important that I stand here today. Thank you for having me, and speak on these truths, on these facts, and hopefully we will be able to limit the persecution within Iran. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks. Jewher Ilham is a Uighur – a Chinese Uighur. Her father was a Uighur scholar, internationally known, and is still in prison. And she spoke passionately and very clearly today. Jewher.
MS ILHAM: Hello, everyone. My name is Jewher Ilham. I’m the daughter of Ilham Tohti. I’ve been speaking for my father’s, like, his situation for about five years. He was detained in 2014, and it’s been more than five years. But today I don’t want to only speak about his case; I want to speak for my people, the Uighurs.
Many of you may know we have 1 to 3 million people that are held in concentration camps. Unfortunately, we don’t have the exact numbers because there is no way to be known, the exact numbers. And so far I have to say it’s fortunate that U.S. Government has been doing a lot for and speaking up very often for Uighurs’ cause, and I would urge, encourage the other countries can do the same. Because of course, having U.S., one of the most powerful country in the world, standing up for our people will be very, very helpful and important, but at this time we all – everyone in this world – need to be united, because this is not only about one person. It’s not only about a group of people. It’s about human, it’s a humanitarian crisis.
And this is the largest humanitarian crisis since the World War II, and we don’t want the same thing happen again. We all know that was a tragedy, that that was tragic, and I hope this UNGA event could help the world realize it is very important, it could encourage this – the world to take actions to help the Uighurs, to help my father, and hope all the ones who have been held for a wrong reason, that they can go back home freely and they will be able to practice their religion or to speak the language that they want to speak, dress the way they want to, dress – eat the food that they want to eat, behave the way they want to behave freely.
And thank you very much today, and I hope you can tell your fellow – your families, your friends, your people and your countries, your government to take actions. Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you. Rabbi Faiz Algaradi is among the last members of the Jewish community in Yemen; was persecuted for his faith, fled, and he was one that spoke here today as well. Rabbi, please come forward.
RABBI ALGARADI: Yeah, hi. Hi, everyone. And I sent some letters to the U.S. officials, and today I get my speech for two or three minutes, and we worked in the ministerial for a week —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: It’s not – not hearing – I can’t hear you very well —
RABBI ALGARADI: Yeah. And we were in the ministerial for four days, and we have to know what is the message we can deliver for every character or official in any country in the world. There’s an idiom that said “make your problem my problem.” So I think that America now, especially the United States, feel the problems of other countries its problem. I ask every country, please, make your own people problem your own problem and help them. You are the best key – you are the best key – to help your people.
I was in Yemen, and I faced a lot of problems, even though I was – I hold a government position. Whenever people try to help me, even the – I think it’s called the human watch – and this story was – depressed me a lot. I think it’s good to share it to you. I don’t know if it’s possible or not, but I will share it. Many people told me not to share it, but I want to share it.
I was rabbi for 400 people. There was a lot of (inaudible), but when I faced problems, they told me, “You are the rabbi, you have to convert to Islam because this will help us to convert your community.” I said, “That’s a problem. I know the history in Yemen – I was born here – what happened here.” I went to high officials. They said, “Maybe you go to the ministry of human rights.” I went there. The first person I met, he said, “What do you want here?” I said, “I think I need help from you.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because this is the office of human rights.” He said, “Yes, but you are not human, you are a Jewish.” This was the message.
I plead the Yemeni Government that they try to help, but there is more people in charge, more than the government, as we see now. Yemen lost – the Yemeni Government lost one-third of its land. It’s in the hand of Houthis. So I don’t know if I can ask the Yemeni Government, because they need the help. How to protect the government? And we know that the Yemeni former president was killed. I know that he was a fighter for human rights, and I supported him in Yemen, but unfortunately we see that he is not alive, and this shows a bad face of Yemen.
So I ask the – here is the message. It will go back to the United Nations: Please help Yemen to rebuild the government and help everyone to get its human rights. Today not just Jewish are abused in Yemen; also officials, governors, ministers are abused – I mean Muslims, not Jewish. So this is terrible, and I pray for the safety of Yemen, for the peace of Yemen, for the peace of Israel, for the peace of every land in the world. Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you, Rabbi. Thank you very much.
RABBI ALGARADI: Thank you.
AMBASSADOR ALGARADI: Finally, we have Andrew Brunson. Andrew was put in a Turkish prison for two years. President of the United States fought hard to get him out. He’s here and he’s been one of the key spokespeople for religious freedom around the world. Andrew.
MR BRUNSON: So I was arrested and imprisoned by the Turkish Government. I had spent a number of years in Turkey working in churches, and I think that’s why they imprisoned me. My special interest here is obviously I suffered from religious persecution; the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that – when they examined my case that I was held for – well, because of my nationality, to use me as a bargaining chip, but also because of religious persecution.
My special interest – I love Turks. I love Turkey. I love Muslims, and I would like to see them have freedom of choice. In the United States we have – I think President Erdogan – I read recently – recently spent $100 million – Turkey did – constructing a large mosque near Washington D.C., and we have temples, mosques; we have all kinds of religions in the States, and people are free to practice them. And we take it for granted in the West often that that’s the way that most of history has been and that that’s the way most of the world is, and it’s simply not the case. Freedom of religion is something that has – we have seen very rarely in history and only in a few places, but it’s very important because wherever you have freedom of religion, you find that the society is free in many other ways as well. Where you don’t have religious freedom, there is often repression.
So I would love to see Muslims who – my wife and I spent years among Muslims. We would love to see them have freedom to choose what they want to believe, and if they want to follow Islam, that’s fine, and if they want to do – believe some other way, to have that freedom as well.
I wonder if there are any questions that you would like to ask.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, please, go ahead. For myself, or for anybody here. Please.
MODERATOR: Oh, okay. Give me a moment. We’ll get you the microphone.
If anyone has any questions, yes, we’ll come around. Please, again —
MR BRUNSON: If you have anything for me, you can ask, and then I’ll sit down, and then – or should I just sit down?
MODERATOR: I think maybe just sit down and we’ll ask each person to stand as they’re addressed, if that’s all right.
And if you have a question, please do identify yourself and your outlet. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name’s Humeyra Pamuk. I’m from Reuters. I’d like to ask you about the concrete steps that U.S. is thinking about taking when it comes to China’s treatment of the Uighurs. We know that you’ve been weighing on how exactly to sort of address them or like confront them, and we know that Deputy Sullivan is holding an event tomorrow, but beyond that, we haven’t heard President Trump talk about Uighurs specifically. Is this something that’s going to happen? If you can just flesh out a little bit about your plans of how to address this, that would be super appreciated. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, it’s a key question. Obviously, there are trade negotiations that are going on right now, and at the same time there’s these discussions that are taking place about religious persecution, human rights, and security issues. These are generally following separate tracks of what’s taking place. The President met with Ilham in the White House in the Oval Office in July along with – and we’ll be putting forward a Uighur seminar tomorrow – the Deputy Secretary, as you noted. That’s proceeding and moving forward.
The longer these things go without resolution, the more likely there will be other actions that follow. We don’t preview sanctions or other actions that will take place, but if China continues to conduct this very – this war on faith, this will be something that will continue to attract a great deal of interest from the United States, concern, and action as this continues – if this continues on forward.
We call on the Chinese Communist Party and the government to allow the people of China to freely practice their faith that they choose.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Alex Rauflogu of Turan News Agency. I just wanted to take it from where Meriam Ibrahim just left a couple minutes ago, that what happens in one country could affect another country. So speaking of Uighurs, do you have any concerns that’s what’s happening in China towards Uighurs, Muslims, and Christians could affect other countries, like in Central Asia? We have seen reports about in Tashkent, for instance, this forced beard shaving incident that took place recently.
Also my second question is about Azerbaijan, if you don’t mind, that there is a list of political prisoners, and local NGOs claim that 68 individuals are imprisoned in connection with their religious activities. So is this something that you see from the broader picture that what’s happening in countries like China, Turkey impacts other countries as well?
And one more question, if you don’t mind. The President announced today 25 million aid. If I’m not mistaken, it’s about political religious freedom aid. Can you explain to us in terms of logistics and perhaps priorities how you’re going to choose those countries or who is going to get that aid? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We hope that our stance by the United States and now what we’re encouraging this International Religious Freedom Alliance will affect all the nations. Almost every nation signed on with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and it declares it grants religious freedom. But there’s been nobody pushing on it. Nobody has asserted that this is something that should be pressed for, fought for. And the United States is willing to fight for this, and we hope that by doing that – whether it’s with China or others – that that will have impact in other places. And our simple request is very simple and very clear: We believe that all people everywhere should have freedom of religion all the time. And this is in the UN Charter and it’s in most countries’ constitutions. So we do hope that our standing up and pushing, and then more hopefully forcefully in the future, this Alliance of International Religious Freedom nations will push for this that both the Secretary of State and the President talked about.
The aid itself is targeted towards religious institutions and protecting religious institutions and artifacts. Later, the 1st of October, I’ll be one of – co-hosting a conference in Morocco where we’ll be talking about the preservation of religious heritage sites. And there are a number of these that are getting destroyed, have become run down in various countries, and we want to see them protected, and also we want to see better security at religious institutions, where we see a lot of them destroyed around the world, people killed at these houses of worship. That’s an offer. That’s us putting forward some resources to help in both that preservation and protection area for religious facilities.
I don’t know how you guys want to call them out there.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador. My name is Rong Shi, a reporter with the Voice of America Mandarin Service. Because of traffic I came late. Probably you already talked about something that my question regards.
Can you tell me how the U.S. Government, too, brought the issue that human rights crisis in Xinjian to this period of the UN Assembly, how it ended in the New York? What kind of activity, what kind of events, will be held during this period? Give me a general introduction.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. Well, the first one was this morning with the President of the United States, Vice President, Secretary of State, secretary-general of the UN, talking about religious freedom and our International Religious Freedom Alliance. That’s the signature presidential event of this UN, and the President used it to push the issue of religious freedom. It’s the first time a member-state has held a meeting here and called a gathering during the UN General Assembly on the issue of religious freedom, which is amazing and tragic in and of itself that it’s taken this long for somebody to stand up and say that something needs to happen in this.
The second is this International Religious Freedom Alliance that the Secretary of State announced at our ministerial on religious freedom that he asked nations to join here. This will be the most significant human rights new effort push in a generation taking place, because we’ve had so much decline in human rights and religious freedom in particular, and we’re going to call likeminded nations together and ask them to join this alliance and push on the issue of religious freedom and against religious persecution around the world. We want to see the iron curtain on religious persecution come down. We want it now.
Those are the big pushes. Tomorrow the State Department will also host – Deputy Secretary Sullivan an issue specifically on the Xinjiang crisis, and we’ll be doing that with a number of other nations who will co-host with us on that topic as well. And then on Wednesday there’ll be a meeting with business leaders on the topic of religious freedom that the United States is cohosting with others as well. So that’s kind of the panoply of events that we’ll be putting forward at the U.S.* General Assembly this year.
QUESTION: Thank you. From your remarks that you made earlier, it appears to me that freedom of religion takes a back seat, and you acknowledged that. But what could be done to revive or to bolster the strength of people who are fighting for freedom of religion? Also, you again mentioned that economics takes precedence over other issues, and that’s also the problem of human rights. So what could be done to remedy the situation? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, I guess I would just disagree with your premise that the economics is taking precedent over this. The President led his signature event at the UN on religious freedom. This was his signature event. He did it today. It had the secretary-general there, and we’re going to push on this topic. It is a sad thing that it hasn’t been pushed on before, but it’s being pushed on now. And we’re going to push hard on this topic, and we call on other nations to join us and this alliance to push for religious freedom and against religious persecution, and we hope many nations will – will do that.
MODERATOR: We have time for just one more question.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador. Ben Marks with NHK, Japan Broadcasting. During UNGA, have you asked to have any meetings with China or other countries that are persecuting religious freedom to try and talk to them directly about your concerns you have? And did you get any response from them, if you did?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: This is my third time here at the UN on religious freedom and religious persecution issues. Each of the times we’ve mentioned China, the last two times there have been Chinese individuals at the meeting. One was a Security Council forum that they hosted, and before then was a religious freedom event. It wasn’t the General Assembly, obviously.
Each time, the Chinese official denied what was taking place in Xinjiang, that there was anything happening there, said it was training camps, education facilities. And I asked then – I said, “If they’re education facilities, what about all the people’s names that I have that are missing? Will you help me find them? Will you tell me where they are?” And I’ve gotten no response. I’d be happy to meet with Chinese officials about this and have them honestly address what the situation is.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the Uighurs. It’s also the Tibetan Buddhists, as you’ve heard. It’s Falun Gong – the organ harvesting issue that the Chinese still will not come forth about. It’s house church, Christian house church and the persecution that’s taking place there. It’s a war on faith. And I went to Hong Kong and spoke about this there, and I said this – they’re conducting a war on faith. It’s a war they will not win.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. This concludes our briefing for today. The transcript will be posted to the Foreign Press Center’s website, fpc.state.gov. We thank you all for your attendance and thank you, Ambassador Brownback.
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