MODERATOR: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for waiting. We at the Foreign Press Center are well pleased to welcome back Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. International Religious Freedom Day, which is Saturday, October 27th, marks the passage of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Ambassador Brownback will discuss its role and our overall policy of supporting international religious freedom globally. We’ll start with some opening remarks, followed by a brief Q&A. I’ll warn in advance – I’m sorry – we have a bit of a time crunch. And with that, let me turn it over to Ambassador Brownback.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thank you very much, and thank you for joining me today and for being here. It’s with a bit of nostalgia that I recognize that this is the 20-year anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act. I was in the United States Senate at the time. I was one of the prime sponsors for the legislation. Senator Don Nickles out of Oklahoma and Senator Dianne Feinstein, I believe at the time, from California were the two primary sponsors of it in the Senate. It’s bipartisan legislation; it passed. The follow-on act to it, the Frank Wolf Act, passed the last year of the Obama administration, late 2016, bipartisan, large majorities in both the House and the Senate of support for religious freedom.
It’s a foundational belief of the United States that each person is entitled, by virtue of their human dignity, to do with their own soul what they choose to do, that this is a God-given right, and that no government has the right to interfere with it. And we believe that from the founding of our country, from the founders that came here. Early Pilgrims and a number of people even that came here were looking for religious freedom when they came to the shores of the United States at the very founding of this nation. It was important then; it’s important now to us.
We believe there needs to be more religious freedom in the world. Unfortunately, 80 percent of the world’s population lives in some sort of religiously restricted environment. And we don’t think that’s appropriate. We don’t think that’s good. And we’re going to continue to push, as an administration and as a country, in a bipartisan fashion, for religious freedom everywhere around the world, for all people, in all places, at all times.
We did that at a ministerial earlier this year. In the end of July, we had the first-ever International Religious Freedom Ministerial. We had countries – 84 different countries were there. And I talked about the need for expansion of religious freedom. I believe we’re at a watershed moment. I believe the gates of religious freedom are going to fly open around the world, that the iron curtain against religious freedom is coming down, and that more and more countries will embrace this.
And they’ll embrace it for a couple of reasons. Number one, because it’s a foundational human dignity that you have as an individual. A second is that it’s good for economic growth. We’re finding in academic studies that countries that will open up to religious freedom, open up to more thought, to more discussion, to more pursuit of religious tolerance – and tolerance is really not even a good enough word – to religious respect, care, loving for each other, that their economies grow. We find also it’s good for security. Countries that open up for religious freedom have less terrorism, because people are not forced to fall into a certain mold. They’re allowed to pursue with their own family and their own lives what they see fit and do. And so that these are just – these are foundational goods as a human individual. They’re also good for your country and its economy. They’re good for your country and its security. And it also happens to be what most countries have signed on to in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that most nations around the world have signed on to as well.
So we celebrate 20 years of International Religious Freedom Act. We are not at all satisfied that the conditions in the world are sufficient for religious freedom. We will continue to pursue these. We did the first-ever ministerial this last year, and the Secretary announced we’ll do another one. So we’re in the planning stages already for this next one this next year. We’re working with a series of countries around the world to do regional religious freedom forums.
I was just meeting with the newly appointed international religious freedom ambassador from Mongolia just before coming here, and they were talking about hosting a regional forum there, of nations – first of academics and governmental leaders, but then of religious and civil society individuals about pursuit of religious freedom in their region and their sphere. We’re meeting with a number of different countries. The International Contact Group just recently met in New York this week. And this is a group of people that, on a working level, push religious freedom. That group’s expanding. We’re seeing more countries appoint more religious freedom ambassadors or envoys, and we encourage that to continue to take place.
No shortage of work, unfortunately, in my field. I’ve been in the office for a full week, one week since the 1st of August, and otherwise just out traveling, meeting, pursuing the agenda, finding a lot of interest, but we’ve got much work to do.
And so as IRF celebrates 20, I think we’re really at a point of pushing it much more aggressively, and I think you will see that taking place from this administration. You’ve already seen it, and there’s more to come.
I would say one other thing before I go to opening – or some questions here. I was delighted to see Pastor Andrew Brunson released from Turkey. It’s been a cause that the President has pursued aggressively for a long period of time, and very pleased to see him home, back here. He shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place, but we were just really delighted and heartened to see him and his wife and family together here and back on U.S. soil, and that this was resolved.
With that, I don’t know how you want to do the questions, but we’ll go from here.
MODERATOR: We’ll use our traditional method. I think everybody here is a veteran, so you know it. Please wait to be called on to take the mic. Please take your – state your name and outlet. Please try to limit yourself to one question. Let me start with Dmytro.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you for doing this. Dmytro Anopchenko, Ukrainian reporting – working here in Washington. Sir, it is the right day and the right place to ask you about Ukraine, whether our church is going to get the autocephaly. So three short questions, please.
Firstly, could you describe the U.S. position, U.S. understanding, maybe the U.S. involvement in this process? Because I know the Secretary made a statement. U.S. department officials, they have visited Ukraine.
Secondly, speaking not to us here in the Foreign Press Center, but maybe to millions of viewers who are looking at you on that part or on that side of the screen, could you tell that it is for good? Because, honestly, it is a discussion in Ukrainian society. Part of the people, they think it’s the really second independence from Russia. Someone is afraid because the country is already divided.
And the third short question: Do you see the real roadmap? Maybe you can just give Ukraine the roadmap, how to get it. Because before the final decision, it should be – or the new church or some kind of different steps. Thanks so much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. Thank you for the question. I was in – in that period of time I was traveling, I was in Kyiv for a portion of it and meeting with a number of Ukrainian officials, religious leaders about the issue of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The United States position is that any church, any religious group of any kind or nature, has a right to organize itself as it sees fit. That’s their right. And again, this is not a right that the government should interfere with. It’s a part of their right as a civil society, and we view that the same way in the Ukraine. That’s what the Secretary has said, that this is the right of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian people, to organize religiously as they see fit, as they desire, without hindrance or interference from outside, and that’s the way we see the issue with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as it proceeds forward. That’s the U.S. understanding; that’s the U.S. position.
The issue about is it for good, that has to be determined by the Ukrainian people. Your government leaders have voted that it’s the appropriate thing to do, but that’s for the people themselves to determine what stance or what route they take. We will back whatever stance they determine to take that they think is right.
Roadmap for autocephaly – that’s got to be determined by the Orthodox Church itself, by the Ecumenical Patriarch, by the organization within the Ukraine of the Orthodox Church. So its own roadmap will have to be decided by the religious group itself. That’s certainly not something for the U.S. to determine.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Now, folks, we have a very little bit of time and I want to cover a big planet, so I will ask that you do keep it to one question. I’m going to go to EFE next and then I’ll go to New York.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. How would you describe the state of religious freedom in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and specifically Nicaragua, if you think that the U.S. should impose more sanctions on Nicaraguan officials? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thank you for asking that. I just have had a staff member return from Nicaragua, and strongly concerned. And here’s the issue for us, is that religious groups, whoever they are, wherever they are, should be allowed to operate freely and within an open space for their practices. Particularly in Nicaragua, it’s strongly Catholic but a growing Protestant Church there as well. Those churches should be allowed to operate freely, without fear or consequence from the government.
The government should protect their right to religious freedom, protect their right to operate freely, and that’s our concern, is that the government itself is not allowing them – is coming after the church in some cases, persecuting them. My staff member came back and – showing and talking about the bullets, holes that she saw in the churches that were shot into recently. That’s not an acceptable situation for religious freedom or religious tolerance if you’ve got people – it looks like a number of individuals – shooting into churches, persecuting the churches. So we don’t agree with that sort of treatment of a church. A church should be protected, not shot at.
Venezuela’s church should be free to speak as it sees fit as well. If they’re concerned about the humanitarian conditions of the people of Venezuela, they should be free and not persecuted. Again, that’s a big role of what the church is about, is about caring for the needs of individuals. One of the – in the Christian community, true religion is caring for the widow and the orphan and their distress. I mean, and if people are in distress, then that’s the church’s – many people see as the church’s key role is to take care of people when they’re in distress. And the church should be free to comment and to do that.
Cuba, we believe the church should be free to operate, and the situation doesn’t change by country. The individual’s right and the group’s right to organize and operate freely should be protected by the government, not conscribed or limited.
MODERATOR: So I said we’d go to New York, and then I’ll come back.
QUESTION: Hi. Just checking, you can hear me?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yes.
QUESTION: Hi there. My name is James Reinl from Middle East Eye. Thanks so much for the briefing, Ambassador. I’ve got a question for you about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. It’s obviously something you’ve spoken about, so has the Vice President, and I daresay the President won a few votes for his positions on it during the 2016 election. And your work in relation to the Pastor Brunson in Turkey is obviously appreciated, but there are other issues in the Middle East. The persecution of Christians continues while the number of refugees that are being allowed into the United States has dropped significantly. Sure, the number of Muslim refugees from the region is down by 90, 95 percent, but the number of Christian refugees from the region is also down significantly, between 60 and 70 percent. There hasn’t been this increase of letting Christians who are being persecuted to come and practice their freedom of religion in the United States and offered status here, and that is of concern for some of the people that came out for Trump during the 2016 election. So I’m just wondering if you can comment on that and demonstrate how the administration is going to deliver on this promise.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah, thank you that question, and I was there over the – near the Fourth of July in northern Iraq, meeting with Yezidis and Christians that had been persecuted and some of the churches in areas that were being rebuilt. And here’s what’s happening that’s different this time around from this administration: In the past we’ve seen this just huge exodus of particularly Christians from the Middle East, and in the past it’s always been, okay, let’s just grant people asylum status in the West, whether it’s Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, let’s just – let’s have people go. Those are still being granted, but what’s happening this time is that the administration has leaned in and said we want to be able to allow these historic communities to be able to stay in the region and be able to have a safe, free life in this region.
So the administration has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into northern Iraq to try to make safe and secure and livable conditions for Christians and Yezidis in that region, and when I was there with the head of AID, it was about of half of some of the communities – of these minority faith communities – that had moved back to their home area. And the churches were being rebuilt and the homes were being rebuilt, some of it by private money, some of it by U.S. money, some of it by Hungarian money and Polish money was coming into the region too to allow rebuilding so these historic, ancient communities could stay there, if that’s what they desired.
So I think the longer term is that people would like to be able to see this diversity be able to maintain and grow in the Middle East rather than continue to shrink as it has the last 30 years and see just these ancient religious communities disappear.
MODERATOR: All right, we have probably time for one question, but we have two more regions, so I want to ask, is there a question for South Asia?
QUESTION: East Asia.
MODERATOR: East Asia, I know. (Laughter.) Plenty of East Asia questions. Do we have a South Asia question?
QUESTION: Additional question about Ukraine. Just —
MODERATOR: We’re – okay, let me take Kurdistan, and then I’ll take East Asia. Sir.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Rahim Rashidi, or Mr. Kurd, from Kurdistan TV.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah.
QUESTION: How would you describe minority situation in Kurdistan? Now we – the both side, Baghdad and Erbil, forming government in process. What is the USA look at for about the minority religions, minority situation? Thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Yeah. I want to express a lot of gratitude to the situation in the Kurdish region, because they have taken in the minority communities and protected them in many situations. Now, there’d be – people would complain about some situations, but overall they’ve done a lot to protect religious minorities, and it’s deeply appreciated in the Kurdish region. I’ve been there; I’ve been to Erbil. And it’s – they – and I think the region ought to take note that if you want to grow, this is the way to do it, is invite in people that are fleeing other places and give them freedom and provide them security. Now, there was concerns about what happened when ISIS moved in, and what happened was some of the minority communities got driven out. But I think people ought to be able to see in Erbil a situation where you can prosper if you’ll let your minorities – and just protect them. So I want to thank you for that situation that’s taking place there.
One of the situations that we are concerned about is obviously in that region, Iran and China on religious persecution that’s happening in both of these countries. Iran has been a CPC, Country of Particular Concern, for some period of time. It continues to be, continues to really persecute its religious minorities in significant ways. The Secretary has commented on that. And in China, we are seeing an increasing persecution taking place of all religious faiths. We had a religious freedom roundtable recently, and the – people from Xinjiang were there, people from the Christian House church; a number of the churches being closed down, bible sales being limited. Xinjiang itself has really been a very difficult case as you’ve seen in the international press of hundreds of thousands, possibly a million people in detention camps and facial recognition systems.
We call on all countries to allow people of all faiths to freely practice their faith and not try to just drive it out of them, and I note hose two countries in particular.
MODERATOR: We’ll take one last question, and then other folks, please get your questions —
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Hideki with NHK, Japan Broadcasting Corporation. You mentioned about the Xinjiang in China, and I would like to follow up questions on that. Well, it’s been reported that the administration has been considering about sanctions to impose against the Chinese officials who are involved in the detentions, and I’m wondering that – how important is it to impose sanctions to improve the situation? And also, the Senator Rubio sent a letter to the IOC, International Olympic Committee, to ask the review – to change the location of the Winter Beijing Olympics. And if you could share your insight or your take on the idea. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m not here to announce any administration positions on China in general on religious freedom or Xinjiang in particular. I know the situation is deplorable. The religious restrictions on the Uighurs is wrong. It is violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, where people have a right to pick and practice their own faith as they see fit. That’s clearly not being allowed in Xinjiang, nor is it being allowed in other areas of China and of other religious groups, whether they be Christian, Falun Gong, Buddhist. The Dalai Lama situation in Tibet is long-suffering and been terrible. We’re seeing all these communities facing increased persecution in China.
This is not acceptable. We as the United States believe this is wrong. That’s why we’ve made them a Country of Particular Concern for some period of time now but also call on them to allow people to practice their religious freedom. And we’re troubled about this, and we’re troubled about the trajectory that it’s been taking. But again, it’s not only China. It’s a place like Iran is doing this as well, and we see increased persecutions in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela.
That’s my point that I – since we’re getting to the end of this – that unfortunately, most of the world lives in a religiously restrictive atmosphere. We’ve talked about a few cases here. We could go a lot of different places around the world, unfortunately, and this is just not the way the world should be. It’s not what people have agreed to in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It’s not what’s best for their country. And as a foundational principle and something that the United States strongly believes in, we’re going to continue to pursue the religious freedom of everybody everywhere as a God-given right that government doesn’t have the right to limit.
So thank you for being here and covering this. Really appreciate it.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Ambassador. And again, I know we left some questions on the floor. I would like folks to e-mail those to me, and we will make sure that we get you someone who can answer it.