Opening Remarks at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom
Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom
And we are oversubscribed. If we could have a room twice the size, it would be full. Three times the size, it would be full, because so many people are so passionate and in need of this topic. And you're going to hear from some people who have directly experienced the persecution themselves.
Right over here, we've got a section of folks that are going to be speaking at different times throughout the conference that have been persecuted for their faith. And those firsthand stories, there's nothing more powerful than hearing what people have experienced themselves. You'll hear the first two of those this morning. But we have some of them here. If you're going to be a person that's speaking, because you've been persecuted for your faith, would you please stand up, so we could recognize you briefly and quickly.
Yesterday we started with a powerful session at the Holocaust Museum. And it was just-- it was amazing to go through there with these individuals. They are touring it, seen what had happened in that persecution, the Holocaust that had occurred. And one of them came up to me and said, how unimaginative evil is, keeps doing the same thing, horribly, horrifically.
And yet, our task is to stop that-- is to stop that from continuing to take place. And that's what we're going to move to do. This is the first ever ministerial to advance religious freedom that in our account and recollection and review of history has ever taken place. We're absolutely delighted you're here for this truly historic event.
I've already had interesting pictures taken with different people of different faiths, standing side by side, smiling, joyous. And I look forward to many more of those taking place. We have members of the faith community of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Zeke, Baha'i Yazidi, and other groups.
We were as inclusive as possible, because we wanted to include everyone of every faith or no faith at all. Everyone who cares about religious freedom and who will join us in this cause. And all of that was intentional, because religious freedom really truly is for everyone. It's a right given by God and is a beautiful part of our human dignity.
Your presence is an encouragement to people of faith around the world that someone cares about their plight and will fight to promote and defend their freedom. Your presence speaks to the importance of religious freedom. Yet, unfortunately, a large majority of the world live in countries or areas where the freedom for practice their own faith is severely limited, prohibited, or in extreme cases, deadly.
People across the globe are being oppressed, brutalized, and killed for seeking to practice their faith or live according to their beliefs. Others face persecution, discrimination, and harassment. This cannot be allowed to continue.
Last month, I went to Nigeria where I saw up close the terrible destruction of by terrorism of faith community-- scores of Christians and Muslims killed. In Burma, the situation in northern Rakhine State constitutes ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a religious minority.
In Iraq, religious minority groups of Yazidis and Christians victimized by ISIS are still in dire needs of security and assistance. In Turkey, Pastor Andrew Brunson remains wrongfully imprisoned on false charges. In China, large number of Uig or Muslims are being sent to re-education camps.
Tibetan Buddhist face significant restrictions in organizing their own faith. And Christian house church leaders are imprisoned. The lack of religious freedom anywhere is a threat to peace, prosperity, and stability everywhere. The right to freedom of religion and the ability to live according to the dictates of your own soul is under attack in the world.
This must change. And that's why you're here. This is a noble cause, but it's also a very practical one. Where religious freedom is promoted, economic opportunity grows. Security increases, and people flourish. Countries seeking to be more free and economically prosperous must devote themselves to protecting this fundamental right of humanity.
Protection for this freedom, along with the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, expression or foundations for a flourishing society. So ours is a great task, yet, successful. More people around the world will experience a burst of freedom that they have never known. A freedom that will yield great improvements for humanity, and an expanding atmosphere of peace.
We cannot afford to fail. Let us redouble our efforts to expand religious freedom. Now here's where you come in. We need you in this cause. If we're to make progress, we need more people to get in the ring, to fight for religious freedom, and to advance it worldwide. We need all of you and many more.
And that's why your participation here is so vital. Civil society groups are often the first reporters of atrocities and persecution. You're often the first to offer support to those who desperately need it. You are on the front lines. The role of civil society cannot be overstated in helping us win this fight.
And that's why we're dedicating two days of this ministerial to engaging with civil society groups, like yourselves, to empower you but to also learn from you. We rely on your contributions now to inform our annual International Religious Freedom report, and your efforts to press governments to act. We rely on your insight to better understand where persecution, discrimination, or violence is heating up. And we look to you to help us craft the right responses to impact the most people.
We need you to help us equip individuals to understand their rights to empower them to assert their rights and fight for them when governments or non-state actors seek to infringe upon those rights. Reflecting the importance we place in your voice, I began convening weekly roundtable meetings with a number of you in this room where civil society groups would come together. And we would exchange what's taking place and promote each other's efforts and actions.
We need better coordination and action within the broader, religious, and advocacy community. That's a good part of what these two-day seminars are about. We need partnerships in the defense, the security, the foreign affairs, the foreign aid communities to help us pursue universal respects for this freedom. We need your help using the media and technology platforms to fight against intolerance and xenophobia targeting religious communities.
And we, as the United States government, need to integrate religious freedom further into our national security strategies, our economic strategies, and our assistance programs. And you'll hear from a number of government officials that will talk about that. We must commit to using all the might, the machinery, and the moral authority we have to stop those nations and actors who trample on free souls. We need to do that. We need that.
And furthermore, I think we have a solemn obligation to do so. Every organization, every group, and every individual has an important role to play in helping us win this fight. We know we cannot get this done on our own. We need your help. And also, I would just ask you to think for just a moment about those people in various countries around the world right now. They are praying that we're successful.
They've heard maybe something is taking place. Is somebody starting to look at this? That somebody's trying to start to be interested in their plight. They have no way out. They can't see a way out. But they know somebody's starting to talk about them and to get organized. And you give them hope-- hope that they'll have a better day that it's coming.
I have heard too many groups that I've worked with over the years that they started to change. And hope came once they started to hear somebody was talking about them and actually interested. And it started motivating them. They're doing that now as we meet here.
And furthermore, we need your faith in action to move the world to not just tolerance of differences, although, that's important. But unfortunately, that bar is just too low. We must move to a place where people genuinely care and love one another no matter our differences.
You must help us get there. Together, an alliance of government, civil society, and faith, we can and will advance religious freedom. With your engagement and leadership, we know the promotion of this universal human right will happen. Let's get it done.
I'm excited about this next section, because this is the testimony of the people that so motivate me all the time. As I travel around the world, I meet with people that have been persecuted. And it is their experience that just makes my blood boil so many times to hear that somebody is treated that way. And I want to do something against it.
Well now, you're going to hear the first of many stories that are going to be featured of survivors-- those who've experienced what we hope and pray no one else will have to repeat. It's my honor to introduce the first two, representing two persecuted religious communities in China-- Christians and Uighur Muslims.
Jamie Powell is our first survivor to speak. She's here on behalf of her husband, Pastor Sou John Sang Chang to represent the persecuted Protestant house church members in China. After Chinese authorities harassed John for decades due to his pastoral and ministry work in China, John decided to focus on humanitarian work in Burma to help educate impoverished and vulnerable children.
Chinese authorities detained him last year and convicted him this March when he attempted to return to China from Burma. Authorities sentenced him to seven years in prison. After Jamie speaks, we'll hear from Tahir Hamut, representing the Uighur Muslim community.
We're deeply concerned by the Chinese government's longstanding efforts to suppress Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhist. We are particularly troubled by reports of the Chinese government's deepening crackdown on Uighurs and members of other Muslim minority groups in China.
One example is the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslims in facilities ranging from makeshift holding centers to prisons, ostensibly, for political re-education. Most Uighurs know someone, including members of their own family, that have been detained in these camps unable to communicate with them for indefinite periods of time without any apparent legal authority, fair legal process, or remedy.
The reports we're receiving about these camps are horrific and shock the conscience. I know we're all eager to hear their stories. I want to thank you, Jamie, and to hear for your willingness to speak today. Jamie Powell.
Have a good day.