THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Okay, so good afternoon, everyone. We will go ahead and mute all of our participants until after remarks. My name is Doris Robinson and I am the moderator for today’s on-the-record briefing, and today’s briefing is on the topic of the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom. And our briefer today is Ambassador Samuel Brownback. He is the ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He will start with some opening remarks and then we will take your questions.
And with that, Ambassador Brownback, you may open with your opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Good. Thank you, Doris. Appreciate it, and thanks, everybody, for your interest in this topic. Today is the release of the report, the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom. Secretary Pompeo put that forward and I’ll go over a few of the points in it and then be happy to take your questions.
Grateful to the President, to the Vice President, and the Secretary for leading on this important topic. This administration has pushed religious freedom aggressively as a foundational – indeed, the first human right, and has had – seen a number of firsts along with that. Last week President Trump signed the first ever executive order on international religious freedom, pressing international religious freedom into all of the foreign policy and the development apparatuses of the federal government and developing it.
President Trump was the first ever president to host an event on religious freedom at the UN General Assembly – did that in 2019. We’ve done two ministerials to advance religious freedom in 2018 and ’19. These were the largest events of their kind on religious freedom ever held and the largest ever human rights-focused conference hosted by State Department.
And then earlier this year Secretary Pompeo launched the alliance, International Religious Freedom Alliance, which is a group of nations that are pushing the issue of religious freedom as a network and working together on this topic. And then also last year the administration put forward the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative. That was launched to push for peace between the Abrahamic faiths – Muslims, Christians, and Jews – by engaging key theologians in each of these faiths on a press forward for freedom.
So we’ve had a number of those things that have happened, along with Pastor Andrew Brunson’s been reunited with his family, Asia Bibi’s been free for more than a year, and due to recent improvements, we’re seeing Sudan and Uzbekistan both came off of the Country of Particular Concern list and are really working hard to move forward on religious freedom.
We also saw during the COVID crisis – and it continues – a number of prisoners of conscience let free by nations. Burma dropped its charges and released nearly a thousand Rohingya. Iran furloughed a few of the dozens of unjustly detained members of religious communities that were in prison.
However, as you will see in this report, the state of religious freedom remains far from perfect globally. In many places of the world individuals have become more familiar with religious oppression than they are with religious freedom. We see this particularly, it seems like, in communist countries, that communism just has difficulty of abiding alongside religious freedom and freely operating religious entities. It’s atheistic by nature in its organization and just can’t seem to really tolerate the free expression of faith. And so we see that in a number of countries around the world.
Faith groups in China are among those that are suffering greatly on account of their beliefs. In Iran 109 members of minority religious groups remain in prison for simply belonging to their religious group. And the government has executed a number of individuals in Iran on charges of enmity against God. In Nigeria, conflicts and carnage continue between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in north central states.
So our work is cut out for us. We must continue to build partnerships and alliances with nations on this topic. We must continue to expand our capacity. I think really the importance of advancing religious freedom cannot be overstated. It must extend to all areas of our foreign policy.
So we will continue to press forward our commitments to promote this fundamental freedom. That’s what we’ve done, that’s what we’ll continue to do. And with that, Doris, let me take questions that people might have.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Okay, we will now open for questions. We ask that all participants wait until I call on you. We will then unmute you. And in order to ask your question, please go through the raised hand icon at the bottom of your screen, and then we will take it from there.
So let’s see. It looks like we have a question from Majeed. Majeed, go ahead with your question, and please state your name and your media outlet.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Thank you, Ambassador. I’m Majeed Gly from Rudaw Media Network; it’s a Kurdish network. I would like – I read the report, and there is quite substantial information about Iraq, what’s going on there. And as you know, one of the major threats for religious minorities, especially Christians, are the Iran-backed militias. They are very powerful – some would say more powerful than the army – and they are religious. And my question for you is: How concerned are you about their presence? And is the United States doing anything from like getting assurances from these militias with regard to the – to protect the religious minorities in Iraq? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, deeply concerned about their presence, their activities. On one of my trips in this office, I went to northern Iraq and met with Yezidis and Christians that had been persecuted by these militias – in many cases horrifically treated, family members killed, women and children raped. It was a horrific situation. So we’re deeply concerned about these militias coming back into power. And maybe in the current iteration or in a different form, but it would be in many cases a lot of the same fighters or the same ideology that’s being put forward.
So we continue to press the Iraqi Government to be strong and forceful in their efforts to protect religious minorities. Even if it doesn’t seem like a great thing electorally for them, it’s needed for the future of the country. And we’ll continue to stand there. We’ve put a great deal of money into rebuilding the area for the religious minorities, particularly the Yezidis and Christians. That was deemed a genocide that they went through by Secretary Kerry, and we’ve got a lot of operations going to try to demine the area to make some of the fields open for use again. And so we’ll continue to work aggressively that, and Iraq does have a great deal of our attention and focus.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question goes to Pearl. Pearl, please state your name and your media outlet.
QUESTION: Yes. This is Pearl, Ambassador Brownback, and with Open Parliament Zimbabwe. Thank you very much for being available today. I certainly appreciate that. I was taking a look over the report, the 2019 report, and you may be already familiar with the SADC Troika in Southern Africa that has just been meeting regarding the ongoing Cabo Delgado crisis in Mozambique. But information is limited and patchy at best, so I’m hoping that you can help me with my question here. Even though the constitution in Mozambique talks about the right to religious freedom, but that that it might be restricted when there’s an emergency, under the COVID-19 President Nyusi did issue an emergency order. And so what I’m wondering is, your report talks about the heavy-handedness of the Mozambique security forces and of the ISCAP group, but it’s not defining what you mean by heavy-handed. And I’d also like to find out what are you doing, what is your agency doing in terms of inter-agency collaboration with USAID in terms of dealing with this ISIS affiliate ISCAP group in northern Mozambique. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Pearl, let me try to answer that two ways. One is that we’ve been very concerned during the COVID crisis for prisoners of conscience and religious prisoners, which is – that’s my account – that they not be subjected to the COVID crisis in prisons, and we’ve advocated strongly that a number of them be released so they not be exposed and possibly die from it. In many cases we have seen prisoners released. In others we did not see that, but that was one.
The second we’ve concerned about is that a number of governments have pushed religious institutions to close and to not meet during the COVID crisis, and that is correct and as it should be. And most of the time, religious leaders have been participating in that and saying yes, this would be harmful to the people that we serve if they did congregate. What I’m concerned about is post COVID crisis, these governments continuing to use the cover of the COVID crisis to continue to hold down religious institutions, particularly religious minority groups. And so we’re really out there trying to message and to watch for countries that would do that.
The second piece on the USAID and development work – with the President’s signing of his executive order last week, he talked and he wrote about ordering USAID and other entities that provide aid overseas to implement within their work plan what they are doing to support and to help religious freedom and to push back against religious persecution. So that will be coming forward now throughout the administration, in all of the areas where AID is working, is what can be done to help religious freedom or to push back against religious persecution. That would apply as well in the countries (inaudible) that you’ve been talking about. And we’ve already started. That discussion has been ongoing for a while, but I think you’ll see more of it.
Final point is we’ve been very concerned that during the COVID crisis the humanitarian aid was kept back from religious minorities, or people were told you can get it only if you convert to the majority faith. We reject that. We will hopefully be doing post audits after the crisis to see if this happened in other places and to push back against the countries that did that.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question goes to Alex. Alex, go ahead with your question, please.
QUESTION: Yes, Ambassador, good afternoon. Great to see you today, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: I have two questions on Azerbaijan. I represent Azerbaijan independent news agency Turan, Alex Raufoglu. You recently had a tweet about an Azeri parliament staffer who got sacked two years ago from his job for religious conversion. And today, the court of appeal in Azerbaijan had a hearing on his case. Basically, they rejected the case. So I wonder if you could offer something further beyond your tweet on this issue. And my second question: The USCIRF recommended the State Department to add Azerbaijan into its Special Watch List. I wonder how much your today’s report as it (inaudible) what we hear from the USCIRF, U.S. Government body. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thank you. The case that I tweeted about in Azerbaijan was about a conversion, and our point on this is that part of religious freedom is the freedom to be able to convert, to whatever faith or no faith at all, that this is your right to be able to assess and to determine. So when people are punished for doing that, whether it’s put in jail or they are denied promotion or kicked out of a job, this is against your basic religious freedom, that a person is entitled to do with their own soul what they see fit. And this was case of that in Azerbaijan, and that’s why I tweeted about it, and Azerbaijan is also a country that I’ve worked with a lot over the years, that I have a great deal of respect for. It really is one of those countries we want to see and we expect more out of, because they can do it, and they’ve really embraced – in some cases, in places – a lot of freedoms, and we want to see that continue to grow, and we think that’s the path forward.
USCIRF, as you noted, has put forward a suggestion on Azerbaijan being on the special watchlist, and that’s – we will take the USCIRF recommendations into account. The Secretary has 90 days from today, the issuing of the report, to make a final determination on Countries of Particular Concern or special watchlist countries.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question goes to Voice of America, Kim. Please state your name and your media outlet.
QUESTION: Hi, Ambassador, thank you. My name is Young Gyo Kim from Voice of America. You mentioned earlier about (inaudible) countries having (inaudible) accepting religious freedom, and North Korea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern since 2011. And today’s report said (inaudible) consistently make clear full (inaudible) relations with North Korea require addressing human rights and religious freedom. Why is religious freedom important for building closer ties with North Korea?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: You kind of cut in and out on me a little bit there, but if I understand the question, it’s what do we expect North Korea to do to build closer ties with them in the area of religious freedom?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Okay.
QUESTION: That’s correct.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: North Korea has a long ways to go. They are so aggressive and egregious in the area of religious persecution. We’ve had people in and eyewitnesses and people testify about they having maybe left the country for a period of time, gone into China, established a faith and self-returned, and then were thrown in concentration camps and persecuted, and people – credible reports of people being killed for their faith. We would – we would ask that North Korea act like a normal nation and allow people to freely practice their faith, whatever faith that would be; allow people to freely gather for their faith, whatever faith that might be; allow people to speak freely without fear of persecution or reprisal for their faith.
These are just basic fundamentals of religious freedom, and North Korea has a long ways to go. It’s my hope they would start down this path, but to date we have not seen any indication that they are willing to embrace even the most modest of religious freedom stances in nature.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. Our next question goes to Jahanzaib with ARY News, Pakistan. Jahanzaib, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Sir, this is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV in Pakistan. Sir, in your key findings, your panel said that Prime Minister Modi of India used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims, while you also recommended targeted sanctions on Indian Government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious rights.
But, sir, India has rejected these findings and they said the report was biased and a new level of (inaudible). So what would you say on India’s government response?
And secondly, sir, has State Department took any action yet on recommendations?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Okay. The – I think what you’re commenting on is on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report, which came out about a month ago. It’s a separate entity from ours, the Office of International Religious Freedom. They made those recommendations; we put out a report and then we’ll – the Secretary will make the determination of whether or not to issue a Special Watch List or a Country of Particular Concern, like what the USCIRF had recommended.
We just – we do remain very concerned about what’s taking place in India. It’s historically just been a very tolerant, respectful country of religions, of all religions. It’s been an area that spawned four major religions itself. And so what – the trend lines have been troubling in India because it’s such a religious subcontinent, and yet it’s getting more and more – we’re seeing a lot more communal violence, we’re seeing a lot more difficulty. I think really they need to have a – I would hope they would have an interfaith dialogue starting to get developed at a very high level in India, and then also deal with the specific issues that we identified as well. It really needs a lot more effort on this topic in India, and my concern is, too, that if that effort’s not put forward, you’re going to see a growth in the violence and of the increased difficulty and difficulty within the society writ large.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador. It looks like we have one final question, from Salim. Salim, please go ahead and state your name and your media outlet.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Muhammed Salim, Online International News Agency, a Pakistan news agency. Good to see you, Ambassador.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: (Off-mike.)
QUESTION: Pardon if I missed your opening remarks. Let me (inaudible) hasn’t been talked about, the question of the Indian (inaudible) are blaming Muslims for spreading coronavirus/COVID (inaudible) Islamic groups and Muslims. I don’t know whether you (inaudible) the report or not, but Muslims are being targeted large (inaudible) under the government’s sponsorship, and many Muslim (inaudible) ministers preaching intolerance of Muslims. What do you say to that, Ambassador?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: You’re cutting in and out a little bit, but what I heard you say was that Muslims are being blamed for spreading the COVID virus in India is what I understood you to say, and what do we have to say about that?
QUESTION: Yes, and Muslims are being targeted for – in every city. They are not allowed to practicing their religion in many states.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. We’ve been tracking this topic during COVID a great deal because we’ve been concerned about the scapegoating of religious minorities. This is not unusual. When you get a stressed situation taking place in any place around the world, often religious minorities are blamed for whatever the case may be.
The religious minorities have not been the factor to blame for the spread of COVID, wherever it is. They may get blamed for it, but they’re not the cause. The COVID is a very virulent virus that communicates and moves very easily, and so any scapegoating is wrong, it’s false, it shouldn’t take place. And we’ve called on governments around the world not to scapegoat, not to blame, and to make sure that each citizen, whether they are of the majority faith or not, are – can access the basic services that citizens have, the health care, humanitarian aid, whatever it might be, that they’re able to get access regardless of their faith. That’s what’s needed.
So in India, we would hope that the minority faiths not be blamed for the COVID – they’re not the ones responsible for it – and that they would have access to the health care and the foods and the medicines that they need during this crisis.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Ambassador, and I want to thank you for joining us today, taking time out of your busy schedule, and I’d like to thank our participants today. We will have a transcript of this session later and I will distribute it to all of the participants. And once again, Ambassador Brownback, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Happy to do it. Thanks, Doris. Thanks, everybody. Talk to you later.