AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you, Secretary Pompeo. Appreciate that. I’d also like to thank the President, President Trump, Vice President Pence, for their strong leadership in driving the religious freedom agenda forward. I consider it a great honor to serve in this role, and at a critical time for our nation and world’s history.
The fight against religious freedom is mounting. There was a report that 80 percent of people live in places where religious freedom is under attack, yet most of the world organizes their life around a set of religious beliefs. They must be free to do so. The Trump administration has done exactly what it promised to do about making religious freedom a top foreign policy priority, and it is. We’ve jumped off the sidelines to fight for people of all faiths.
This is because we believe there is no more important a time for the United States to promote religious freedom than now. We will not stop until we see the iron curtain of religious persecution come down; until governments no longer detain and torture people for simply being of a particular faith or associated with it; until people are no longer charged and prosecuted on specious charges of blasphemy; until the world no longer believes it can get away with persecuting anyone of any faith without consequences. We will not stop.
I lead an incredible office of people who relentlessly work to advance religious freedom around the globe. Today’s rollout of the 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom was made possible by them, and I’d like to specifically highlight Bob Boehme, who heads up our report team, as well as all of our editors and numerous State Department officers and personnel in embassies and consulates around the world who diligently prepared these comprehensive reports.
Every day of the past year and a half that I’ve been on this job, I’ve been grateful for this team and their commitment to this work. We’ve been working with foreign governments to help them organize their own conferences, to encourage a regional and context-specific look at religious freedom. We’ve increased our engagement with the NGO community, expanding a religious freedom roundtable on Capitol Hill which I co-host every Tuesday that I’m in town. We’ve supported religious freedom roundtables starting up in other countries around the world.
A grassroots movement for religious freedom is beginning to take hold around the world. We’re seeing the fruit of our labor. President Trump led a government-wide effort to secure the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson. Pakistan released Asia Bibi after their supreme court upheld her acquittal of blasphemy charges. And as Secretary Pompeo said, Uzbekistan, for the first time since 2006, is no longer a Country of Particular Concern.
But the religious freedom central to our experience at home is still encroached upon in many areas of the world, as our 2018 report shows. For example, Iran has one of the worst records on religious freedom in the world and continues to show a blatant disregard for protecting individuals’ religious freedom. Countless members of Iranian religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims, face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs. Their religious books are banned. They are denied access to education. Their cemeteries are desecrated. Blasphemy and proselytization of Muslims is punishable by death. Last year, the Iranian regime violently cracked down on the peaceful protest of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes in what Human Rights Watch called “one of the largest crackdowns against a religious minority in Iran in a decade.” To Iran we say we are watching and we will stand up for all those whose right to religious freedom is infringed upon.
China has declared war on faith. We’ve seen increasing Chinese Government abuse of believers of nearly all faiths and from all parts of the mainland. In Xinjiang, China has detained more than a million ethnic Muslims in camps that are designed to strip away the culture, identity, and faith of these religious communities. We share reports – again, that others make – that Chinese authorities have subjected prisoners of conscience, including Falun Gong, Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and underground Christians, to forcible organ harvesting. This should shock everyone’s conscience. China also continues to interfere in Tibetan Buddhist practices and Tibetan culture, including by interfering in the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist lamas. They’ve increased their repression of Christians, shutting down churches and arresting adherents for their peaceful religious practices. And to this we say to China: Do not be mistaken, you will not win your war on faith. This will have consequences on your standing at home and around the world.
In Eritrea, authorities continue to confine Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Antonios, who has been under house arrest since 2006. He along with hundreds of other prisoners of conscience should be free.
In Turkey, the government of President Erdogan continues to keep the Halki seminary closed. We call on them to let it be reopened.
And in Nicaragua, religious leaders report constant surveillance, intimidation, and threats. The national police assault priests in full daylight, revealing the government’s contempt for any religious leaders they view as a threat to their authority.
The United States cannot secure religious freedom alone. We need everyone’s help; everyone has a stake in the fight. That’s why this year’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom is more important than ever. We expect this year’s event to be bigger, broader, and better than last year’s groundbreaking event. The continuing and complex challenges to religious freedom demand an even greater stage with more stakeholders working together to identify solutions. The ministerial will also provide a platform to amplify the voices of survivors of religious persecution, these from around the world, whose stories will demonstrate the unrelenting power of faith.
Our work is still cut out for us. We must move religious freedom forward around the world. We look forward to working with other governments and our partners in civil society and the religious community to do just that.
Thank you very much for joining us today, and I’m glad we could present this report to you.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Nashville.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Hello, sir. Thank you for all that you do for our country and for all these other countries. What is the status report in South Africa with the Christians, the white genocide that’s going on there? Are you actively involved in that area?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: The report covers every country outside of the United States. So the South African piece is reported upon. And what we do in the report is we report of what’s taken place.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: So that’s there, and you can go to the report online and look it up and see what’s there.
QUESTION: Okay, sir.
MS ORTAGUS: Yes, ma’am.
QUESTION: Yes, my name is Nazira Azim Karimi. I’m from Afghanistan, Afghan journalist. My question is regarding Pakistan. Pakistan has attacked its religious minority for many, many years. What pressure can the United State use to ensure that Pakistan stop their religious attacks?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We put Pakistan on the special watchlist this year, this past year for the first time. The report we’re putting out today, then we will make other determinations off of this report. But we put them on the special watchlist. I visited them, went to Pakistan earlier this year – we were in frequent contact with them, I’ve met with embassy officials – to cite the issues that are going on in Pakistan. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of harm to various religious communities that have taken place in Pakistan. It’s a country I’ve worked with often in the past, and it’s my hope we’re going to start to see some progress.
Knox Thames of my staff is here, has been there recently as well. We hope to get into some really – I would hope some key negotiations with Pakistan to try to move them forward on protecting their religious minorities, because of all the things noted in our report and other places. So we’ve got a keen eye focused on them and hope to work with them, and to get them off the special watchlist. But they’re going to have to take actions themselves.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you. On the North Korea freedom of religious – recently a North Korean defector’s confession about the situation in the human rights in North Korea, there is the 100,000 people in – North Koreans in the – in prisoner camp. What is the U.S. final designation of human rights and religious freedoms?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, North Korea’s horrible on human rights and religious freedom. They’ve been a Country of Particular Concern for years. They have a number of individuals that, as you noted, are in a gulag system. We had a lady last year testify at the ministerial, and I probably will have somebody again this year, that had escaped out of North Korea. But this was her second escape. The first time, she was caught and returned and went into one of the camps, and her crime was having a Bible. It’s really a deplorable situation that’s taking place. We’re going to continue to exert strong pressure with these factors that I’ve noted to you or noted in our report. Unless they change radically, they’ll continue to be a Country of Particular Concern for us. These carry sanctions with them as well, and we’ll use those in North Korea and other places that are particular egregious cases of religious freedom violations.
MS ORTAGUS: Conor.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. It’s nearly two years now since the Rohingya genocide began in Myanmar, and the administration’s policy so far has been to try to work with the civilian half of the government. But still that hasn’t worked, and conditions remain unsafe for refugees to return; access to northern Rakhine State has never been granted to the UN or other organizations. At what point do you say that the policy has failed?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well I myself have been to the refugee camps in Bangladesh. I meet with Rohingya activists frequently. We continue to advocate for aid for the people in those camps obviously. The prior secretary had designated it “ethnic cleansing” taking place – this is Secretary Tillerson had established that previously. I think more needs to be done and more pressure needs to be put to allow the Rohingya to have a – be able to return safely. Our policy is that they be allowed to return safely and be able to live securely in Myanmar, and that is the U.S. policy, position. I think we have to continue to be aggressive in pushing that forward.
There’s a number of bills working their way through Congress, and Congress has been vocal on this issue as well. I think it’s something we have to continue to press on. And it’s an issue in our space in that most of the Rohingya are Muslims, and it’s – really no doubt in my mind that if they were of the dominant faith in the country, they wouldn’t be run out of the country. But this has been going on for decades in one iteration or another, but this one has been the strongest and largest by the military in Myanmar of what they’re doing in this case.
QUESTION: When you say “more pressure,” does that include sanctions?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We’ve done some of that, as you know already. There have been a couple of generals and military units that have put – been put under Global Magnitsky sanctions, and I think you’re going to – I – we’ll see. If no positive action is taking place – as you note, we haven’t seen positive action. We do support what the UN is doing in Burma in dealing with the Rohingya, but I think the world community has to continue to take note of this and see what it’s going to take to actually get something positive to take place.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you so much. So Secretary Pompeo mentioned that this year’s report has a special section on Xinjiang Uighurs. Do you support – do you have a position on restricting foreign video surveillance companies’ ability to buy American technology so that the security cameras will not be used against religious minorities such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang? And separately, in March you mentioned Taiwan has announced its ambassador-at-large for international religious – your counterpart. Do you support Taiwan’s ambassador to come to participate to this year’s ministerial? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We invited Taiwan to participate last year in the ministerial, and we would love to have them again this year. I attended the religious freedom summit that they had in Taiwan earlier this year, and they did an excellent job of hosting civil society groups from around – primarily from around Asia – on religious freedom. So I would welcome their participation in the ministerial. We will have two sections of the ministerial. There’s a civil society religious freedom section that will be the first two days, and then the foreign ministers will be invited in on the last day, the Thursday, July 18th, will take place. So – but we’d love to have their participation. The U.S. has – China is a Country of Particular Concern on religious freedom, and we have sanctions that are associated with this. Part of it is criminal surveillance equipment that’s already in that list of sanctioned products. I know Congress is looking at a broader cross-section of equipment issues, but we already have them as a CPC country, and that’s already one of the sanctions under another legal setting – another set of laws, but one that we fully support as part of what they are doing to the religious community in Xinjiang and across the country.
As I noted in my report, my statement, it used to be in China on religious persecution it was a bit more episodic and it was more regional. But now, this – these are national policies that are being taken place and religious regulations have been taken over by the Communist Party instead of by the government, which may seem like a difference without a distinction, but it turns out it’s quite different. And that’s what’s happening in China today, unfortunately.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, last question. Shaun.
QUESTION: Thanks. I wanted to ask you about Saudi Arabia. In April, there were mass executions – I believe 37 people – disproportionately from the Shia minority, some reportedly crucified. What’s your assessment of how things are going in Saudi Arabia in terms of the trajectory of protecting minority rights, particularly of the Shia minority, and is it something that the United States has or will be raising in its discussions with its ally?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, it’s something that I certainly raise. They are, again, a Country of Particular Concern. You can go on our report and those things are cited, too. The executions that took place were cited in our report and we will continue to raise these issues with Saudi Arabia. I think there was a lot of hope at first with the change of leadership that things would open up substantially. We need to see actions take place in a positive direction, but they continue to be one of the worst actors in the world on religious persecution.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. I have one quick correction for all of you: So Pakistan, last year they were on the special watch list, and this year they’re on the Countries of Particular Concern list.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes.
MS ORTAGUS: So one just little correction on Pakistan.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes, I’m sorry. That was my —
MS ORTAGUS: That’s okay. Thanks, everybody. See you soon.