MR ICE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today’s on-the-record briefing on the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report, which Secretary Blinken presented just about an hour and a half ago here at the State Department.
We have with us today Dan Nadel, the senior official for the Office of International Religious Freedom. He’s going to be briefing us today. Senior Official Nadel will open with some brief remarks and then we’ll take a few of your questions.
Just a quick reminder that this call is on the record, but the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. And as the Operator has said, you can please dial 1 and then 0 to join the question queue.
And with that, I will now turn it over to Senior Official Nadel. Dan?
MR NADEL: Thanks so much, J.T., and good morning, all – or good afternoon, I should say. As the Secretary noted in his opening remarks this morning, the release today of the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report reflects the United States’ abiding commitment to championing international religious freedom for everyone, everywhere, and especially where it’s under threat. The release of today’s report also underscores this administration’s deep commitment to promoting universal respect for the right to freedom of religion or belief for all as a U.S. foreign policy objective.
Freedom of religion is both a core American value and one of the human rights and fundamental freedoms reflected in the international instruments, including the UN Universal Declaration, the International Covenant on Civil-Political Rights*, and others. And we expect governments to act in a manner consistent with their international obligations.
In far too many countries, 2020 witnessed significant government restrictions on religious practice as well societal intolerance, discrimination, and violence against individuals on account of their beliefs. Anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and other forms of bigotry continue to be genuine threats, with four out of every five people in the world living in environments with high or very high restrictions on religious freedom.
Studies have shown that governments that safeguard religious freedom are more stable, economically vibrant and peaceful than those that don’t, and they’re also better partners of the United States. Conversely, those that don’t protect religious freedom can foster radicalization and violent extremism, undermine economic development and threaten social cohesion and political stability. And as such, we promote respect for religious freedom not just because it is a cherished American value but also because it’s a national security imperative.
With that, I will be happy to take your questions.
MR ICE: Okay, thank you, Dan. We’ll give it just a moment for people who wish to ask a question can get into our queue. Once again, you’ll dial 1 and then 0 to enter the queue. We’ll just give it a moment.
Okay, let’s go to the line of Jiha Ham of VOA Korea.
OPERATOR: Jiha, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Is my line open?
MR ICE: Yes, you’re good to go.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. So I have a question on North Korea. How would you address the situation in North Korea? There are reports indicating that the situation in North Korea has not changed. But when it comes to the North Korean issue and what the U.S. administration has to deal with not only with the human rights or religious freedom issue, but also the nuclear or other WMD problems, so is it possible you could bring up this human rights issue while you still have to deal with the WMD programs?
Also, on your report of South Korea, there is a part mentioning that an NGO in South Korea wasn’t able to send Bibles last year because they were blocked by South Korean police officers. Do you have any concerns that the South Korea has passed a law banning leaflets or other material sending activities? Thank you.
MR NADEL: Well, thank you very much for both of those questions. With respect to North Korea, we continue to be deeply concerned about the DPRK’s wide-ranging human rights abuses, including severe restrictions on religious freedom, and we are committed to promoting accountability for the perpetrators of those abuses. Hundreds of thousands of people remain in prison camps, including for their religious activities. These are issues of genuine concern to the Biden-Harris administration, and as the administration has noted, they are intent on putting human rights issues at the center of our foreign policy.
So the nuclear issues are real; they are a significant challenge. We intend to address those issues head-on, as we have. But there is no tradeoff between addressing human rights issues or addressing other matters of national security or bilateral concern. We can do all of these things at once, and in doing so we both demonstrate the importance of our fundamental principles, but we also make better outcomes. Because if we don’t address these things in totality, then the possibilities for lasting peace and stability in the region are, in our view, reduced.
With respect to your question on the anti-leafleting law, the United States promotes fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief and expression around the world and in collaboration with valued partners, including the Republic of Korea. We continue to work with our civil society partners and the DPRK defector community to promote human rights and the free flow of information into North Korea. So we are aware of that concern. It is documented in the report. And – but we will continue to work with partners to ensure that the people of North Korea also have access to information that’s vital to their lives and their livelihoods.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line of Alex (inaudible) of Turan News Agency. Alex.
OPERATOR: Alex, your line (inaudible).
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon – yes, good afternoon. This is Alex Raufoglu from Azerbaijan’s independent news agency, Turan. I thank you all for this opportunity for the report, very compelling report. I have two technical questions. One is: The USCIRF recommended the State Department to place 15 countries, including Azerbaijan, in its own Tier 2 category. I’m just wondering what is the procedure and when should we expect State to come up with the list of Special Watch countries?
And on Azerbaijan, the report reflects some ongoing dialogue between the embassy and the government on several concerns. The most latest concern I hear from Baku is that there’s a discussion on amendments to the law on religious freedom. Is that also subject to the communications between you and other government? And if so, have you heard back from there Azerbaijan Government about the concerns that you have raised? Thank you so much.
MR NADEL: Thank you very much for these questions. First off, the question regarding the timing of our Country of Particular Concern and Special Watch List designations – so the law lays out a process whereby, after the IRF Report is released, the Secretary begins a review of the situation for religious freedom in all countries to determine whether any of them or which ones meet the legal criteria to be designated as Countries of Particular Concern or Special Watch List countries.
So that process – again, now the report is out this morning, we’ll begin in short order, and over the next few months we’ll be assessing those situations, and the Secretary will be making the determinations. We anticipate those announcements to be going out some time later this year. You may recall the last set of designations were made by then-Secretary Pompeo back in December of 2020. So that’s what you can look forward to on that one.
With respect to the Government of Azerbaijan, we continue to see reports that the government physically – has physically abused, arrested, and imprisoned religious activists over the course of the last year on account of their religious beliefs. Reports estimate that Azerbaijani prisons held about 40 to 50 people who activists considered to be political prisoners detained on account of their religious beliefs. We urge the Azerbaijani authorities to remove the burdensome registration requirements for faith groups, and to release all individuals who have been imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of – pardon me – Phil Joseph.
OPERATOR: Phil, your line is open. Go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Can you hear me – yes. Two very simple questions. First of all, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the general reporting is that religious freedom will not be a priority of this administration as it was in the previous one. We just – we hope that that’s not necessarily the case. But the general consensus is that approximately 80 percent of religious persecution is towards Christians, and just wondering if that – if you’re aware of that balance.
And then secondly, we have a specific question about Iraq.
MR NADEL: Sure, well let me —
MR ICE: Go ahead and ask – go ahead and ask your question about Iraq, please, Phil.
QUESTION: Okay. The question about Iraq is: Those of us that were previously reporting (inaudible), he was – he pushed very strongly for what he called the Biden plan. We discussed with him many times basically to allow to Iraq to evolve into four general areas, and one of those areas was an Assyrian administrative region. We just – USCIRF just had a team that came back I think a couple days ago with a very strong indication from the Iraqi Government as well that the only solution for the Assyrians – the indigenous people of Iraq was their own area, which has been approved twice by the Council of Ministers.
So we just wanted to inquire as to whether there’s a clear understanding of that and whether there’d be a push for that, and then also that there would be ongoing projects to help establish that Assyrian area as the only long-term solution for the refugee situation. It’s both the position of the Iraqi Government, the current president, Barham Salih, you probably well know from when he was in D.C. But I just wanted those two questions.
In terms of priorities, there’s 56 members of the Organization of Islamic Unity, whose legal job is to care for any persecuted Muslims in the world. So at least in the Iraq side, the constant push is to help Christians, as they’re the only ones that are not legally protected. So I just want to ask the balance, and then – and specifically in terms of Iraq. And then also, finally, the reference to the Assyrians as not minorities, which is a very derogatory term, but as indigenous people as they are called in Iraq. Thank you.
MR NADEL: Thank you very much for those questions. Let me start off by just reinforcing something I said at the briefing this morning: Religious freedom is a key foreign policy priority of this administration. I – there’s no equivocation there, no concern about any perception of backing away. I can only say that we are committed day in, day out to advancing respect for this fundamental freedom for every person around the world, irrespective of their religion or beliefs.
You mentioned instances of Christian persecution around the world. We take those issues extremely seriously, we engage directly with religious communities that have been impacted by violence, discrimination, and abuse, as well as with governments that are either partners in our efforts to address such circumstances, or frankly partner – governments that are – that may, in fact, be perpetrating some of these abuses to encourage them to take a different path, to adjust their laws and policies, to bring them into line with international standards.
I would also mention in this regard the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 was passed by the House of Representatives 23 years ago this week. Shortly after its passage in the House, it unanimously passed the United States Senate and was signed into law by President Clinton later that same year.
Promoting and defending international religious freedom has been a bipartisan effort from its very inception, and the record of both Democratic and Republican administrations on this topic has been strong and solid and we continue to do that work with an eye towards ways to advance respect for the issue, as well as with an eye backwards at was has worked and not worked over a series of prior administrations. So there is no question this will remain a central feature of our work. The law demands it and our office exists with the sole purpose to advance respect for religious freedom for all.
With regard to Iraq, I would defer to regional colleagues on questions involving Iraq’s territorial integrity and questions of various plans that you mentioned. What I would say about our Iraq work is that we remain concerned that insecurity and lack of economic opportunity in many traditional religious minority areas is something that’s discouraging members of religious communities from returning home. And we’re continuing to work with the government to foster liberty, equality, security, and prosperity for Iraqis of all beliefs.
And I would also just mention that through the State Department and USAID, we’ve provided over $500 million in assistance since 2017 specifically to assist religious and ethnic minority communities in northern Iraq. And we will continue to seek justice and accountability for those responsible for perpetrating ISIS genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and others.
MR ICE: Okay. Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, dial 1-0 to get into our question queue.
Let’s go to the line of Janne Pak.
OPERATOR: And your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, I’m Janne Pak. I have one question for China and North Korea. China and North Korea –- North Korea for human rights abuses and abuse of religious people. What is the U.S. final destination for this region to solve this problem?
Second question: When will the North Korean human rights ambassador be nominated?
Thank you very much.
MR NADEL: Thank you very much. And I – let me first say, I mean, without equivocation, the PRC Government is among the worst abusers of religious freedom in the world. One of the other worst abusers is the Government of North Korea. There’s no question that these two governments stand, unfortunately, together in this hall of shame.
When it comes to appointments, I don’t have anything to forecast there, but I can assure you the administration is currently vetting qualified candidates for all of these roles. But in the absence of a specific nominee or appointee named, we continue to do this work day in and day out. So you can be assured that the efforts to advance respect for these fundamental freedoms are not awaiting the arrival of a confirmed principal by any means; they are ongoing and they are vigorous and they are continuous.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR ICE: Okay. Let’s go to the line of Yuni Salim.
QUESTION: This is Yuni Salim with VOA Indonesian Service. My question is: There are long lists of violations of religious freedom in Indonesia, so which one is – for State Department is most concerning?
And also about the – based on my interview with (inaudible) President of Indonesia Joko Widodo, his commitment to religious freedom is not reflected in reality. So what is your view on that?
Also, the – another one you – it stated that killing about the FPI members – six members of FPI, also the pastor from Papua, so I just want to get you – what you think on that one too.
MR NADEL: Well, thank you very much for your question. With regard to Indonesia, we remain concerned about use of blasphemy laws against individuals which allow for detaining and sentencing people of up to five years in prison. Overall more than 150 people have been convicted under the blasphemy laws, which are regularly used against members of non-Muslims, non-Sunni minority groups. So we would call on the Government of Indonesia to ease restrictions on religious freedom, including restoring access to places of worship and working to ensure that the rights of members of religious minority groups are fully respected. We’d also encourage the government to engage in direct dialogue with these religious communities over laws and regulations that may impact their rights.
MR ICE: And I think we have time for one more question. Please go to the line of Dimitri Soultogiannis, Star Channel Greece.
OPERATOR: (Inaudible) please go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank – yes. Thank you so much. Dimitri Soultogiannis with Star Channel Greece. This is in regards to Turkey. There are some references in the report about the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and also the fact that Turkey is not recognizing the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios. Can you elaborate a little further on the Turkey remarks? Thank you very much.
MR NADEL: Sure thing. Thank you for the question. We were disappointed by the government’s decision to alter the status of the Hagia Sophia. And we would continue to urge authorities there to ensure access to the building and its visual iconography for all people. We also with regard to Turkey have concerns that there are a variety of restrictions that remain in place on religious activities, including the government’s failure to recognize any non-Muslim religious minorities other than the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, the Jewish community, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government continues to restrict efforts of religious minorities to train clergy. And 2021 marks 50 years since the forced closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary. And we would encourage the government to reopen the Halki seminary after 50 years.
MR ICE: And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we are out of time. I would like to thank Office of International Religious Freedom Senior Official Dan Nadel for joining with us today, and I’d also like to thank all of you for joining us. And with that, this briefing has ended and the embargo is lifted.